Archive for September, 2012


The Creation of Adam – Andrew Graham-Dixon

September 28, 2012

Probably the most iconic religious fresco of all time. Michelangelo 1511.

The ceiling’s central triad of images begins with The Creation of Adam, a majestic depiction of the moment when God imparts life and a soul to the first of men. It is among the most dynamic and startlingly original of all Michelangelo’s inventions. Like many famous pictures, it can all too easily be taken for granted. The overwhelming familiarity of the composition, its beguiling power and simplicity, can obscure its true qualities. Only on close, careful inspection does the work disclose its range of meanings and subtleties of expression.

The tradition of misreading The Creation of Adam is as old as the picture itself. So far did it depart from all previous artists’ imaginings of the creation of humanity that the work completely bemused at least one early visitor to the Sistine Chapel. Paolo Giovio, bishop of Nocera, who also wrote brief lives of Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci, composed a slender biographical sketch of Michelangelo sometime between 1523 and 1527.

Giovio’s text, a bare 31 lines in Latin, contains a short appreciation of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which is principally memorable for revealing the author’s bafflement when faced with The Creation of Adam: `Among the most important figures is that of an old man, in the middle of the ceiling, who is represented in the act of flying through the air …’ Giovio clearly had no idea of what he was looking at. But his incomprehension serves as a measure of just how novel, how alien to prevailing conventions, Michelangelo’s painting seemed to his contemporaries.

The artist was familiar with other depictions of the same theme by earlier Renaissance artists. In devising his composition, he may have had somewhere in his mind a celebrated bronze panel by Jacopo della Quercia on the Porta Magna of San Petronio, in Bologna, a city Michelangelo knew well, having spent several months there creating his doomed monumental bronze portrait of Pope Julius 11. Jacopo had depicted Adam nude and recumbent on a somewhat abstract outcrop of rock, springing into life as if waking from sleep, with the cloaked figure of God the Father standing over him, making a restrained, priestly gesture of benediction. Michelangelo galvanized this somewhat wooden piece of early Renaissance theatre by turning it into a whirlwind encounter between man and God.

The Almighty floats weightlessly through space, wrapped in a billowing red cloak that enfolds his angelic entourage. He is a severe, grey-bearded Creator, reaching out with great deliberation towards the languid Adam, a suitably earthbound figure (the name `Adam’ is also the Hebrew word for `earth’). So it is that God imparts to man, across the few inches of air that separate their outstretched fingers, the spark of life that makes him move and breathe.

In early Christian depictions of the creation of man, God had usually been truncated to a mere hand gesturing from a strategically placed cloud. He had developed into the familiar figure of an old man with a beard by the middle of the fifteenth century, but there was no precedent for showing him `in the act of flying through the air’, let alone dressed in clinging draperies that reveal his legs from the thigh down.

The fingertip act of creation was also Michelangelo’s own invention. Given that this has become the single most famous, most reproduced detail in the entire pictorial scheme of the ceiling — despite the fact that the celebrated fingertips themselves were repainted, due to a small area of loss, by the restorer Domenico Carnevale in the 1570s — it is worth considering in some depth just what Michelangelo may have intended by it.

Where did the painter get this striking idea? It owes little to the account given in Genesis 2: 7, which casts God in the role of a sculptor who literally breathes life into his work: `The Lord God formed man, of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.’ Michelangelo may have taken inspiration from a medieval hymn traditionally sung at Vespers on Whit Sunday, one stanza of which refers to ‘Digitus paternae dexterae’ – the finger of God’s right hand. The overarching theme of this hymn, which celebrates the nature of God’s gifts to man, also seems apposite to The Creation of Adam:

The seven-fold gift of grace is thine,
Thou finger of the hand divine;
The Father’s promise true, to teach
Our earthly tongues thy heavenly speech.

Thy light to every sense impart;
Pour forth thy love in every heart;
Our weakened flesh do thou restore
To strength and courage evermore.

Drive far away our spirits’ foe,
Thine own abiding peace bestow;
If thou dost go before as guide,
No evil can our steps betide.

The notion that God, through the touch of his finger, metaphorically imparts not only grace but also instruction was embedded in earlier Christian tradition. In considering the Ten Commandments given to Moses from on high, Church fathers had seized on the metaphor of a divine finger — one that both writes instructions for mankind and points out the path of the true and good life. St Augustine develops this idea in a passage in his fifth-century treatise De spiritu et littera:

That Holy Spirit, through whom charity which is the fullness of the law is shed abroad in our hearts, is also called in the Gospel the finger of God. That those tables of the law were written by the finger of God, and that the finger of God is God’s spirit through whom we are sanctified, so that living by faith we may do good works through love

It is impossible to prove that Michelangelo, or the papal advisers who may have helped him to formulate his iconography, had such ideas in mind when devising The Creation of Adam. Interpretations of paintings based on their presumed connections to a specific text or texts are often suspect. This is especially true when those texts are not the primary sources, as in this case, but are drawn instead from the deep well of post-biblical Christian thought.

Such hypotheses bring with them the temptation to force ill-fitting meanings on to works of art that visually resist them — to yoke the unwilling image to the inflexible word. As Leo Steinberg once cuttingly remarked of a fellow art historian, `His glimpse of a Michelangelo picture is as from a speeding car bound for the library.’ Yet in this particular instance the facts of the picture seem to confirm rather than contradict the hypothesis — suggesting that Michelangelo was indeed aware of the Christian tradition that found, in the image of God’s finger, a metaphor for his commands.

There is a look of total concentration on the face of the creating God, in Michelangelo’s fresco. But his gaze, depicted with such sharpness and clarity, is pointedly not directed at the reclining Adam. Instead, he stares with great intensity at his own outstretched finger. He does so in a way that suggests that what is being channelled through it, and towards Adam, is not only the impulse of life but also man’s incipient awareness of God’s own will — and, with that, the capacity for thought and for moral action. It is as if, in the moment of his creation, Adam is also being instructed in the laws by which God means him to live — laws that he will break, with fatal consequences for all of mankind.

Did Michelangelo really mean the viewer to understand all this, in the gesture and gaze of the Almighty? There are good reasons for believing so. The idea of transgression, Adam’s transgression against the divine will, is central to the tragic unfolding of the Genesis story as told by the artist. In the next painting but one, The Temptation and Expulsion, he will take the forbidden fruit. Michelangelo will later make it clear that man’s fallen condition is a direct consequence of Adam’s disobedience, by making the slumped body of the drunken Noah the epitome ofpostlapsarian human frailty resemble a pathetically collapsed version of Adam’s God-perfected body in the scene of his creation.

Yet for Adam to transgress, Adam must first be given the laws that he is to break. This begs the question, where, if not in The Creation of Adam, does Michelangelo imply that narratively necessary divine act of instruction? There is no space for it anywhere else in his scheme. The subject of the painting is best understood, therefore, as the formation rather than simply the creation of man.

The most compelling evidence for this interpretation is to be found in one of the most obvious places, namely Ascanio Condivi’s life of the artist. Admittedly, Condivi is an occasionally unreliable witness, but the fact remains that he knew Michelangelo intimately, and the very terseness of his description of The Creation of Adam, so pointedly bald and unembroidered as it is, gives it all the more credibility. Of the figure of the Almighty, Condivi simply writes the following: `God is seen with arm and hand outstretched as if to impart to Adam the precepts as to what he must and must not do.’

Michelangelo’s Adam looks up at God with an expression of barely dawning awareness on his face. He has just woken into consciousness and there is still about him the wide-eyed helplessness of a child. Yet the look in his eyes suggests that he has already begun to absorb the awareness that life brings with it duty to God. There is a slight implication of melancholy in his gaze, as of someone being drawn half against their will from blissful ignorance towards a sense of responsibility.

Adam’s body is full-grown and athletic. The chiseled outlines, the ebbs and flows of contour that define his nude form, recall Walter Pater’s famous remark about art aspiring to the condition of music. The effect of the entire figure is epitomized by the single detail of Adam’s outstretched arm — which swells and fades, rises and falls, from the curve of the shoulder to the soft bump of the bicep, along the meandering line of the forearm and across the reaching hand, like a melody drawn in the air.

The modeling of the figure’s flesh and muscles in light and shade is equally haunting (and represents a triumph of subtlety within the medium of fresco, which is far less malleable and forgiving than oil paint, making such effects of chiaroscuro notably difficult to achieve). Michelangelo disdained landscape painting but here he has painted Adam’s body as if the human form were itself a landscape to be explored. The soft juncture of his left calf and thigh, the shadowy hollows and protuberances formed in the area around his neck and collarbone, are painted with an immense, tender sensuality. They have what the twentieth-century painter Frank Auerbach has called a ‘haptic’ quality, a term denoting painted forms so instinct with life that to look at them is to have the uncanny sense of physically touching that which is depicted.

Adam must be perfect, his image that of a god on earth, because of the words of Genesis 1: 26: `And God said, Let us make man in our image, .after our likeness.’ In no other figure on the whole of the ceiling is Adam’s beauty repeated, and that too is part of Michelangelo’s expressive purpose. The first of men, newly created, represents a perfect state of harmony with God — but one that is destined to be lost, and never recaptured until the blessed rise on the day of the resurrection.

The scene where the action takes place is the most abstracted of landscapes, a grassy mound suspended in infinite space. Temporally, the picture is even more ambiguous because it represents a moment in which all of history — from the creation of man to his fall and ultimate salvation — is also contained. Michelangelo gives to God an aspect that expresses his infinite power. The vivid coils and whorls of his hair and beard evoke the cataclysmic patterns of whirlwinds and whirlpools. They bear a remarkably close resemblance to a later, celebrated group of apocalyptic drawings of floods and deluges by Michelangelo’s contemporary (and occasional rival) Leonardo da Vinci, who knew the Sistine Chapel and may have been influenced by this detail.

The figures contained within God’s mantle span the arc of time. At his shoulder he is accompanied by seraphim and cherubim, members of the highest order of the angels, to whom Michelangelo has also given the character of classical representations of the four winds. Their presence makes of the mantle a sail, swelled by their breath and thus impelled through space. Below God’s right arm lies a mysterious, anguished figure, present only as a groaning face, half obscured by darkness. This shadowy presence can tentatively be identified as a personification of Chaos, the dark nothingness from which the Almighty wrestled the universe into being — now conquered, he is whirled along in God’s train like the captives trailed in the wake of ancient triumphal processions.

There is also a beautiful young woman held in the embrace of God’s left arm. She looks across at Adam with a lively, fascinated gaze — the look, almost, of a startled gazelle — suggesting that she knows her destiny to be entwined with his. She can be identified with certainty. She is Eve, preordained in the mind of God from the beginning. Michelangelo has arranged his composition so that she appears as if coming out of God’s left side, a subtle prefiguration of the way in which she will actually emerge from the left side of Adam — God’s own likeness on earth — in the ceiling’s very next narrative scene. The length of green drapery that enfolds her loins has become unwound and flutters freely in the air beneath the crowded mantle of divinity, reaching down towards the earth that is Adam’s namesake. Green is the color of life, symbolizing Eve’s fruitfulness as the future mother of mankind.

If the spectator looking up at the ceiling should choose at this point to zoom out, so to speak, and encompass all three of Michelangelo’s paintings telling the story of Adam and Eve, a larger pattern of meaning can be seen to have its origin here. The figure of Eve is repeated twice more across a single, powerful diagonal that connects all three narrative scenes of the ceiling’s central triad — creating, as it were, one line of vision along which can be traced the successive stages of her destiny. She nestles in God’s mantle; she emerges from Adam’s side; she tempts Adam to his fall.

Behind the figure of Eve, in The Creation of Adam, can be glimpsed another female figure, with wispy blonde hair and a face partially obscured by paint damage. Her hand is wrapped around God’s left arm, suggesting her proximity to the Almighty. The most likely explanation for this figure’s presence is to be found in Proverbs, Chapter 8, in which Wisdom is personified as a woman coeval with God himself. `The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old,’ she proclaims. `I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth there was … When he prepared the heavens I was there, when he set a compass upon the face of the depth’ (Proverbs 8: 22-7).  Wisdom seems to be leaning forward to whisper into Eve’s ear. But Eve, transfixed by the sight of her husband, pays her no heed.

Numerous interlinked allusions and associations play across the composition. These form a chain of meaning, carried from figure to figure, at times from hand to hand, the end of which is to create a metaphor for an omniscient God’s all-encompassing salvific plan for erring humanity. In the figure of Eve is also implied that of the Virgin Mary, vessel of the Incarnation. Beside her is a staring child, a look of ominous foreboding in his eyes. He is the infant Jesus Christ — an identification underlined by the hand of God, whose fingers encircle the round protuberance of the child’s right shoulder in just the same gesture used by a priest when he elevates the Host, flesh of Christ, at the ceremony of the Mass. Within the mantle of God, within the divine mind, all is foretold and all foreseen.


The Genesis Cycle, First Triad:– Andrew Graham-Dixon

September 27, 2012

Art historians have noted several unusual features of this fresco. Andrew Graham-Dixon has pointed out that God has exaggerated pectoral muscles suggestive of female breasts, which he interprets as Michelangelo’s attempt to illustrate “male strength but also the fecundity of the female principle.” In addition it has been noted that the anatomy of God’s neck is too complex and does not resemble the normal contour of the neck. The lighting scheme of the image has been noted to be inconsistent; whereas the entire scene is illuminated from the bottom left, God’s neck appears to have a different light source from the right.

The Separation of Light and Darkness
Michelangelo begins at the beginning, with a depiction of The Separation of Light and Darkness. He shows the Almighty God of the Old Testament as a heroic male figure with grey beard and hair, dressed in lilac robes that swirl about him, twisting upwards through the heavens to separate light from darkness. He embodies male strength but also the fecundity of the female principle, in that Michelangelo has given him pectoral muscles nearly as rounded as a woman’s breasts. The figure rises into space amid rays of light. The picture is at once the sparest and the most austere of the ceiling’s scenes of Creation.

The subject is drawn from the Book of Genesis:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
Genesis 1: 1-5

There was no precedent in earlier Christian art for Michelangelo’s dynamic airborne deity swooping through an implied infinity of space. The artists of the Byzantine and medieval traditions had expressed their own sense of the ineffable mystery of God the Creator by removing the scenes so elliptically described at the start of Genesis to a pictorial world of abstract geometrical perfection.

The Italo-Byzantine craftsmen who had created the thirteenth-century mosaics of the dome of the Baptistry in Florence — a famous and much venerated building at the heart of the town where Michelangelo spent his formative years — had represented the God of the Creation scenes as a solemn, hieratic figure floating on a ground of gold, enclosed by the celestial spheres, making a stiff gesture of benediction.

The artists of the early Renaissance had humanized God the Father, to the extent that he could appear in Masaccio’s celebrated fresco of The Trinity, of the 1420s, in the Florentine church of Santa Maria Novella, as a doughty ancient with a forbiddingly solemn expression on his face. But Michelangelo energized this still recently anthropomorphized figure in a way that was both new and revolutionary.

His reinvention of the all-creating deity as a figure flying through space under the unseen impulse of divine will, was to prove enormously influential. Artists of the High Renaissance such as Raphael, followed by the painters of the Baroque and Rococo periods, would follow Michelangelo in embodying God as a being with human form endowed with a superhuman, cosmic thrust and energy.

Romantic painters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would impart something, of his twisting, irrepressible force to the Promethean heroes of their own disenchanted mythologies. Michelangelo’s influence can even be discerned in the popular art of the twentieth century. Inventors of the American superhero comic-strip adapted his style to their own ends. The character of Superman has his origins, as a graphic creation, in the airborne God who flies majestically across the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Although The Separation of Light and Darkness is the first of the nine narrative scenes from the Book of Genesis, Michelangelo painted it last of all, along with the other two scenes of primal creation. Having gradually worked his way along the ceiling, starting at the chapel’s entrance with the painted histories of fallen humanity, he finished above the altar with images of the all-powerful God. So while the momentum of his narrative moves, as in the Old Testament, from the acts of God to the life of man, Michelangelo actually painted that narrative in reverse order.

There could have been purely practical reasons for this, but the artist’s piety may also have played a part. Michelangelo must have known that, as he proceeded with the project, he would become more technically accomplished in the medium of fresco. Perhaps he wanted to be at his best when painting the scenes that involved God alone.

To create the image of the deity reaching up to separate light from darkness, night from day, Michelangelo used the difficult technique known as sotto in su. The figure is seen, from beneath, as though soaring up and away from the viewer. Practical methods had been devised by earlier generations of artists for accomplishing this particular type of illusion. The architect and theorist Leon Battista Alberti, in his treatise . on painting of the 1430s, had described a perspective `veil’ — a grid of threads strung on a wooden frame, through which a painter might study a subject seen at an extreme angle of foreshortening, transcribing each element of what he saw on to the corresponding sections of a squared-up piece of paper.

If Michelangelo used a device of that kind, he did not do so slavishly. Such was his self-assurance that he departed in many details from the carefully calculated sketch for this scene produced in his workshop, to help him realize this difficult perspectival illusion. The outlines of that sketch were incised into the wet plaster before Michelangelo began work, so the evidence still survives of just how freely he improvised from it. Minute study of the picture’s surface during conservation has revealed that the artist changed the angle and position of both of God’s hands and arms, and even shifted the entire figure so as to set it more firmly on a diagonal — increasing its torsion and intensifying the sense of God’s upwardly spiraling energy.

The difficulty of making off-the-cuff changes to such a challenging composition should not be underestimated. It is a tribute to Michelangelo’s exceptional ability to think three-dimensionally, even when working in two dimensions, that he managed to carry it off. It is as if, in painting The Separation of Light and Darkness, he conceived the rectangular panel to be painted not as a flat surface but as a block of stone extending upwards through the vault of the ceiling. Into that block, he imagined himself carving the figure of God, painting a form he could almost feel with his hands.

God’s act of creation is simultaneously an act of division. He reaches into the air as though separating bright swirls of lightly tinted steam from a mass of heavy grey storm clouds. Michelangelo, as well as the more theologically learned among his audience, may have associated the separation of light from darkness with ideas about the Creation expressed by the venerable Saint Augustine (354-430).

In The City of God, the influence of which had been all-pervasive in medieval Christendom, Augustine had compared God’s separation of day from night to his division of the angels into two communities, the good and the bad. A number of traditions told of the rebel angels rising against God, under the leadership of Lucifer, and being cast down into darkness by the host of good angels, led by the Archangel Michael. Augustine explicitly identified the good angels with heaven and the light that God called `Day’ in Genesis is 1:1 and 1: 3-5. The all-creating God is also God the judge. Just as, in the beginning, he divided dark from light, good from evil, so on the last day will he divide mankind into the saved and the damned.


There are numerous stories of Julius’s growing impatience with the length of time it took to finish the ceiling. On one occasion, he is even said to have struck Michelangelo in a fit of frustrated rage. The pope’s importunity may explain the great speed with which the artist finished the scenes of the Creation. Not only were they among the last to be completed, they were by some distance the most rapidly painted. Analysis of its surface has revealed that The Separation of Light and Darkness was painted in a single giornata — just one working day of about eight hours, a period determined by the rapid drying-time of the wet plaster into which the painter of true fresco is obliged to work his images. The artist worked quickly and instinctively, using particularly dilute pigment so that in places the figure of God seems as though dissolving into — or condensing out of — the circumambient air.

As a measure of the painter’s acceleration, the time taken three years earlier to paint The Deluge, at the other end of the chapel, had been no fewer than twenty-nine separate giornate. Admittedly, the subjects are hardly comparable, in that The Deluge occupies a larger area of ceiling and contains many different figures, all of whom had to be depicted in some detail for the story to make its impact. The broad, summary style in which Michelangelo painted the soaring figure of God was well adapted to the contrasting grandeur of the opening of Genesis — a metaphor, itself, for the sweeping, flowing, creative powers of divinity.

The Creation of the Sun, Moon and Plants
Michelangelo also worked with great rapidity on the second of the three scenes of primal Creation. This was a larger and more complicated composition than The Separation of Light and Darkness, but one that still took him only seven giornate to complete. Its subject is The Creation of the Sun, Moon and Plants. This time the figure of God appears twice, to indicate that two different moments in the narrative have been telescoped together.

To the right, frowning with concentration, he divides the heavens with a sweeping gesture of his arms, creating both sun and moon. The wingless angels in his broad cape express a mixture of admiration and awe, bordering on terror. This part of the composition is drawn from Genesis 1: 14-18: `And God said let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night … And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night…’

To the left he is seen from behind. Here, the contours and delicate coloring of God’s lilac robe give it the look of a conch shell flying unexpectedly through the sky. He is shown in the act of bringing forth vegetation from the hitherto barren earth, in the form of a few wisps of grass and fronds of fern, silhouetted against the white air. Michelangelo’s source here was Genesis 1: 11: `And God said let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself…’

There is a pointed lack of emphasis on the actual creation of the earth, a part of the story that the artist has not quite left out but has certainly abbreviated to a bare minimum. It is implied, so to speak, as something that must necessarily have happened, in the gesture with which the receding figure of God calls forth the grasses and other plants. But even that gesture is given relatively little prominence, enacted as it is by a Creator whose mighty back — and even mightier posterior — is turned to the spectator. Far greater prominence is given to the formation of the sun and moon. Both were drawn with the aid of a compass — the imprint made by its point is still minutely visible in the centre of each sphere — and colored in flat thin layers of golden yellow and silvery grey. Michelangelo has contrived matters so that his entire composition revolves around sun and moon and the divine gesture that links them.

According to an ancient tradition going back at least as far as to the writings of the fourth-century St Ambrose, the sun was held to be a mystic symbol of Christ, while the moon, reflecting back the sun’s radiance, was equated with the Virgin Mary, mother of Christ and embodiment of the Church. In creating the sun and moon, therefore, God was also pre-ordaining Christ’s Incarnation and the institution of the Church. His outflung arms are a visual anticipation of Christ’s arms, stretched upon the Cross. The expression of solemnity on his face suggests that even at this moment, so close to the beginning of time, he is gazing ahead and seeing, in his mind’s eye, the betrayal and death of his son.


The Creation of Life in the Waters
In the last painting of the first triad, Michelangelo’s God is restored once more to effortless tranquility. He floats through the air, again wrapped in a billowing mantle and attended by a small angelic retinue. This time he. is shown above a vast expanse of grayish-white water. Some authors have assumed that the painter had Genesis 1: 2 in mind: `And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.’ Others believe that he meant to indicate the separation of the land from the water, as it is described in Genesis 1: 6: `And God said let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.’

Either hypothesis, if true, would mean that Michelangelo had disturbed the chronology of Genesis in the order of his pictures. But there is no good reason to suppose that the artist reversed biblical time here. The last of his three pictures almost certainly depicts the events of the fourth day of Creation, which take place directly after the creation of sun and moon: `And the evening and the morning were the fourth day. And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creatures that have life …” The gesture of his hands suggests that Michelangelo chose to paint the very moment of this invocation. God holds his palms above the water, creating a teeming multitude of unseen creatures down in the depths of the ocean.


‘A Bathroom Of Nudes’ – Andrew Graham-Dixon

September 26, 2012

Michelangelo never wanted to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He was daunted by the difficulty of the task and made it clear from the start that he resented the commission, which had been imposed upon him by the imperious and demanding `warrior pope’, Julius II. The artist persisted in the paranoid suspicion that the whole scheme had been cooked up by his enemies and rivals, to give him an opportunity to fail on the grandest scale and in the most embarrassing way. As they well knew, he was a sculptor, not a painter, and would be bound to make a fool of himself.

Besides, he had better things to do. The decoration of the ceiling of the chapel of the papal conclaves — all twelve thousand square feet of it — clearly struck Julius II as a fittingly grand scheme on which to employ the most prodigiously gifted artist of Renaissance Italy. But Michelangelo did not see it like that. For him it was a distraction from the yet more ambitious project, of a great monument sculpted from marble, to which he had already devoted years of his life, and on which his heart was set.

He reluctantly noted down the details of the contract for work on the ceiling in a memorandum written to himself — the earliest document confirming his acceptance of the commission – phrased with apparently heavy irony. `Today, 10 May 1508, I, Michelangelo sculptor, have received from His Holiness our Lord Pope Julius II five hundred papal chamber ducats … on account of the painting of the vault of the chapel of Pope Sixtus for which I began work today under the conditions and agreements which appear in a document written by the Most Reverend Monsignor of Pavia and under my own hand.” Michelangelo, sculptor, had reluctantly agreed to paint.

The `Monsignor of Pavia’ with whom he had made the agreement was Cardinal Alidosi, a favorite of Julius II who was soon to meet with a bloody death. The pope appointed him as legate of Bologna but Alidosi governed the city so ineffectively that he provoked a successful uprising against papal rule. Called upon to explain his failure, he made the mistake of heaping the blame on Duke Francesco della Rovere, the pope’s nephew, and shortly afterwards the enraged duke stabbed Cardinal Alidosi to death in broad daylight on a street in Ravenna — a murder which went unpunished and largely unlamented.’ Michelangelo was a superstitious man and this may have strengthened his gloomy conviction that the contract he had signed with Alidosi was an ill-omened deal.

The murder took place in the summer of 1511, when after three years of back-breaking toil the artist was still wrestling with the decoration of the ceiling. A year later, with the end at last in sight, he addressed a stoical letter from Rome to his home town of Florence, telling one of his brothers that the work was almost finished. He was plainly exhausted. But what shines through, despite the wearily laconic tone of the letter, is Michelangelo’s belated, dawning sense of how much he had achieved, despite his own worst fears: `I shall be home in September … I work harder than anyone who ever lived. I am not well and worn out with this stupendous labor and yet I am patient in order to achieve the desired end.’

Posterity has rarely regretted Michelangelo’s grudging acquiescence in taking on his `stupendous labor’, although there have been occasional dissenting voices. Barely ten years after the artist had finished his work, the newly elected, notoriously ascetic and – much to Rome’s relief — short-lived Pope Hadrian VI is said to have turned a baleful eye up to the ceiling, and to have curtly dismissed it as `a bathroom of nudes’. The most prolific and influential art critic of nineteenth-century England, John Ruskin, was similarly disconcerted by the ceiling’s many nude figures. He regarded it as a work of retrograde genius, which replaced the innocent piety of early Renaissance Christian art with the turbulent energies of a dangerous sensualism. Ruskin even went so far, in a lecture given in Oxford in 1871, to describe Michelangelo as `the chief captain of evil’ of the Italian Renaissance.

Despite such outbreaks of misplaced prudishness, there has otherwise been broad consensus about the quality and importance of Michelangelo’s paintings for the Sistine Chapel. Collectively they represent one of the highest pinnacles of creative achievement — an equivalent, in the visual arts, to the poetry of Dante and Milton, or the music of Bach. The most fervent admirers of the fresco cycle go further, arguing that it is the single greatest work of painting in the entire history of Western civilization.

That was certainly the opinion of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the founding president of the Royal Academy, who dedicated the last and most emotional of his Discourses on Art to the subject of Michelangelo, the only artist whom he considered to have been `truly divine’. Speaking to his students for the final time, on 10 December 1788, Reynolds regretted that he had spent his life painting portraits and imagined what he might do if he were a student once more: `were I now to begin the world again, I would tread in the steps of that great master: to kiss the hem of his garment, to catch the slightest of his perfections, would be glory enough for an ambitious man.’

Michelangelo occasionally seems in danger of disappearing behind the myths that have circulated about him, the many stories about his superhuman abilities, his `divine’ nature and talents. What is sometimes forgotten is that most of the elements of Michelangelo’s legend were in place while he was still alive. For example, Reynolds’s reference to the artist’s supposed divinity has its origins in a flattering pun on the two parts of the artist’s name, composed by Michelangelo’s contemporary, the poet Ludovico Ariosto — `Michael, more than human, Angel divine’.’ This was then turned into a commonplace by the artist’s friend and biographer, Giorgio Vasari. Vasari used the phrase `the divine Michelangelo’ so frequently as to turn it into a kind of Homeric epithet.

Novels and plays have been written about Michelangelo. Films have sought to dramatize his volatile personality and to tell the story of a life that was, for sure, anything but ordinary. Such attempts to reanimate the artist have for the most part whittled him down to the wooden caricature of a tortured genius. But however they may have distorted the man, the very existence of such productions says something important about the nature of his achievement, and the nature of his originality.

Michelangelo was one of the first artists to call forth intense speculation about his own identity and motives. It is no accident that people have wanted to flesh him out in fictions. His art made them want to do that. Perhaps the single most radical and revolutionary aspect of his work — and this is particularly true of the paintings he created for the Sistine Chapel ceiling — was the fact that it so strongly insisted on, and inflamed, precisely that kind of curiosity. It cannot be too strongly emphasized that almost every form and figure, almost every image among the myriad images with which Michelangelo spanned the vault of the chapel, is starkly unconventional.

He was well aware of the solutions that had been found by earlier generations of artists, who had illustrated the same Old Testament stories that were prescribed as his subject matter. But he did his utmost to avoid repeating them. The paintings that he produced, ranging from The Separation of Light and Darkness to The Creation of Adam, from The Deluge and the other stories of Noah to the depictions of the prophets, are exhilaratingly varied and inventive. But they bear little resemblance to any pictures made before their time. Even at the halfway stage of their completion, when the artist’s scaffolding was moved across the vault to reveal the work he had done so far, what most immediately struck those who thronged to see the pictures was their utter originality. They were instantly recognized as a `new and wonderful manner of painting’.

There was, in fact, a well-established Renaissance convention of eschewing convention — of creating works of art with the explicit intention of leaving previous works of art in the shade. That tradition was particularly strong in Florence, the town where Michelangelo spent his formative years and began his career as an artist. It was embodied in the works of the quadrumvirate of Florentine masters who had reinvented the languages of painting, architecture and sculpture during the first half of the fifteenth century: Brunelleschi, who had erected the great dome of the city’s cathedral; Ghiberti, creator of the bronze reliefs that decorated the doors to the city’s Baptistry, famously dubbed by Michelangelo himself `the doors of paradise’; Masaccio, painter of the frescoes for the Brancacci Chapel in the church of the Carmine, where Michelangelo drew and studied in his youth; and Donatello, the sculptor of the marble St George that stood guard over the city’s grain store at Orsanmichele, and the creator of the figures of prophets and saints, whether of St John the Baptist or Mary Magdalene, carved with such subtle realism they seem instinct with thought and on the point of speech.

Madonna of the stairs (or Madonna of the steps) is a relief by Italian Renaissance master Michelangelo, created around 1491. Madonna of the stairs was one of Michelangelo’s first paintings. He made it when he was about seventeen.

Of those figures, it seems likely that Donatello meant the most to Michelangelo. This was not only because Michelangelo, himself, wanted to be a sculptor. A pupil of Donatello’s, Bertoldo di Giovanni, almost certainly gave Michelangelo his own first lessons in sculpting; and the young artist’s earliest surviving work, The Madonna of the Stairs, is a bas-relief evidently inspired by the bas-reliefs of Donatello. It may well be that Michelangelo felt that there was a direct line of inheritance between them, although in temperament and approach the two artists could not have been more different.

The source of Donatello’s power as an artist is the strength of his faculty of imaginative projection. He asks himself what a desert prophet such as St John in the wilderness might actually have looked like, emaciated and wild, and he carves what he sees in his mind’s eye. He asks himself what it might look like when a woman such as the vengeful biblical heroine Judith cuts a man’s head off, and he casts the image in bronze. His works are compelling but they compel no meaningful interest in him because in creating them — in giving them such a strong sense of life that they present the illusion of being not works of art but actual human beings – he has absented himself.

Michelangelo is not like that. His originality is of a different order, his creativity of a different nature. The images presented by his paintings for the Sistine Chapel ceiling are not the product of any great sense of human empathy. If anything, they suggest that Michelangelo had little interest in entering into and genuinely sympathizing with the lives of other people — in the field of his art, at least. It is impossible to believe in Michelangelo’s Adam, in Michelangelo’s Noah, in Michelangelo’s people fleeing from the deluge, in anything like the same way that it is possible to believe in Donatello’s figure of a wild-eyed prophet known as Zuccone (literally, `pumpkin face’). Michelangelo’s figures are removed from reality in such a way that they appear almost as phantasms or ideas.

The whole Sistine Chapel ceiling easily assumes the appearance of a phantasmagoria, in which all the images are united by their nature as emanations of Michelangelo’s own thought and sensibility — his own contemplation of the truths that might lie embedded in the mysterious and often inscrutable Old Testament stories which he had been called upon to illuminate. The fresco cycle as a whole radiates a powerful and sometimes oppressively strong sense of introspection. Looking at it feels almost nothing like looking at the real world. It feels, instead, like looking inside the mind of the man who created it.

Michelangelo was an accomplished poet as well as a visual artist. That fact contains within it a clue to the particular, unique qualities of his painting. To draw a literary analogy, Michelangelo does not tell a story in the prosaic, direct manner of Boccaccio but in the poetically allusive style of Dante — the one Italian writer, according to Michelangelo’s biographer Ascanio Condivi, whom the artist `has always studied’.

Every pose, every gesture, in the Sistine Chapel ceiling is charged with the sense of deliberation, intensity and polyvalence that words and phrases acquire in great poetry. No element of Michelangelo’s work is without significance, depth, implication, sometimes to the point where his language becomes so fraught with possibility, so compressed and allusive, that it cannot be pinned down to the expression of any single doctrine or idea.

In this sense his spirit of innovation as a painter might be compared to that of Shakespeare as a writer — who, in Hamlet, invented what Frank Kermode describes as `a new rhetoric’, so inward-looking and so rich in complexity that `sometimes it takes the poet beyond the limits of reason and intelligibility’. Nothing means only one thing and everything has been subjected to the immense pressure of the artist’s thought. This holds for the larger patterns of meaning that play across the surface of the Sistine Chapel ceiling’s surface, connecting one picture with another; it prevails too at the minute level of the smallest detail, epitomized by the most famous detail of the ceiling’s most famous image of all — that small area of painted plaster where the whirling energies of a multitude are suddenly stilled, crystallized, to the particulate density of two fingers pointing across a few inches of air.

In short, Michelangelo did not just invent a new kind of art, but a new idea of what art could be. He put his own sensibility, his own intellect, his own need and desire to fathom the mysteries of the Christian faith, centre stage.


A rather dizzying virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel courtesy of youtube but it does show you how to maneuver about the virtual tour which you can find here.


Christopher Dawson on Sanctifying the Pagan – Bradley J. Birzer

September 25, 2012

The sign of the cross was used as a sacred symbol in one form or another by many pagan peoples, long before the emergence of Christianity. In Paganism this symbol had mythical significance. According to the researchers, the cross had originated among the ancient Babylonians of Chaldea, and was used as a symbol of the pagan god Tammuz. Since the Bronze Era, the sign of the cross was used by many tribes in Europe as a symbol of consecration for the newborns. Also, the symbol of the cross was used among Aryan civilization as a representation of mystical light of the pagan gods or sacred fire and even the sun. The ancient scientists believed that the middle of the universe was where the earth meets the sky, and the four arms of the cross indicated the four cardinal points

While these comments concern Sanctifying the Pagan, they had particular import for me as I struggle to evangelize the gospel to openly hostile derisive anti-theists, those who echo Christopher Hitchens in his book title “God is Not Great” and “Religion ruins everything.” A brief moment of dialogue with one last week as I told her about watching the Republican Convention where I had learned that Mitt Romney had served as a bishop in his Church. I had been impressed by the stories of his works of charity. This was greeted with a snarky snort of disbelief.

I followed up later with an exchange on the work of Catholic priests and their acts of charity. “That’s all bullshit.” I was told. As someone who for most of his life has been imprisoned in selfish ego that rarely thought beyond himself, I am in awe of any work of charity, not the least the mindset that promotes such things. And here was a woman who was telling me that not only did she not believe in it but couldn’t even see it. Redeem this, asshole, the sign said.

I must tell you I love my life or what little sliver I still have of it. The greater error would be to retire and ponder the wonderful thoughts of Christopher Dawson. It would be so easy not to have my home assistant in my life with her cynical liberal ways and “lapsed Catholic” outlooks. I learn a lot from her.


The Christian must redeem not just one person or one culture, but all persons, cultures, times, and places. Christianity must never be exclusive or particular, but instead welcoming and universal. Christianity was, Dawson explained, “not conceived as a human society but rather as a new creation, reborn in Christ and destined to extend beyond the boundaries of Israel to the Gentiles and the whole human race.” [Dawson, Formation of Christendom]

Dawson’s central theological tenet came from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, the first chapter, in which he explains that all things come from the One, and all things must be sanctified and brought back to right order, in conformity with the One. “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church,” St. Paul wrote. For “he is the beginning, the first-born among the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, making peace by the blood of his cross.” [Colossians 1: 17-20]  

Indeed, Dawson argued, only in God exists pure Being. All other being reflects the pure Being of God, in some way, shape, or form. “Thus the whole universe is, as it were, the shadow of God and has its being in the contemplation or reflection of the Being of God,” Dawson explained in 1930. “The spiritual nature reflects the Divine consciously, while the animal nature is a passive and unconscious mirror.” [Christopher Dawson, "The Dark Mirror," Dublin Review, vol. 187 (1930)]

In these arguments, Dawson significantly resembles his nineteenth-century exemplar, John Henry Newman. “There is in truth a certain virtue or grace in the Gospel which changes the quality of doctrines, opinions, usages, actions, and personal characters when incorporated with it,” Cardinal Newman wrote,and makes them right and acceptable to its Divine Author, whereas before they were either infected with evil, or at best but shadows of the truth.” [John Henry Cardinal Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1960)]

The complete sanctification of the pagan is the end result of the Christianization of the world. As the Christian moves forward, empowered by the Holy Spirit and the sacraments, he takes the pagan and changes the essence not only of the individual pagan, but of the pagan culture itself. Just as the physical person remains the same during baptism, but his soul is purified and the direction of his desires changes, so too with culture. In fact the development of Christian culture and the progress of Christianity in the individual soul are in many ways parallel,” Dawson explained. “For the history of Christianity is essentially that of the extension of the Incarnation; and the study of culture shows the same process at work in history that may be seen in detail in the lives of individuals.” [Dawson, "The Leavening Process in Christian Culture," dated August 7, 1955]

A culture may keep its pre-Christian forms, but the essence of the culture — its stories, myths, symbols, etc. — become Christian meaning and purpose.The cult of the saints and the holy places consecrated the whole historical and geographical context of culture,” Dawson wrote, “and gave every social relation and activity its appropriate religious symbolism.” [Christopher Dawson, "Education and the Crisis of Christian Culture," Lumen Vitae, vol. 1 (1946),] Dawson argued that this was an extension of the `Aristotelian principle of matter and form.” [Dawson to Mulloy, August 27, 1954] Even against and within the modern, totalitarian state, the Spirit can work.

The Church remains what she has always been, the organ of the Divine Word and the channel of Divine Grace. It is her mission to transform the world by bringing every side of human existence and every human activity into contact with the sources of supernatural life. Even the modern State, that new Leviathan, that `King over all the children of pride,’ is not irrelevant to the work of grace nor impenetrable to its influence. If it does not destroy itself, it must be transformed and reconsecrated, as the power of the barbarian warrior became transfigured into the sacred office of a Christian king.
Christopher Dawson, Church, State, and Community: Concordats or Catacombs? Tablet (1937)

Therefore, even in the twentieth century, against the brutal mechanized ideologies, man had a chance to redeem the world through the Spirit, Dawson argued. [See especially his book The Judgment of the Nations (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1942)]

In these beliefs, Dawson follows a long tradition of western theology and especially of the Christian Humanists. In his “On Christian Doctrine,” St. Augustine wrote that if philosophers “have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it.” In much of the City of God, St. Augustine uses Cicero and Plato to support his argument that a thriving Christianity was compatible with a stable post-Roman world; “Human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life — we must take and turn to a Christian use.” [St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Book II, Chapter 40]

Clement of Alexandria, living in the late second and early third centuries, presaged Augustine’s argument. Pre-Christian faiths, he argued in his Miscellanies, served as a “preparatory teaching for those who [would] later embrace the faith.” Additionally, he speculated that philosophy was given to the Greeks as an introduction to Christianity. For philosophy, Clement concluded, “acted as a schoolmaster to the Greeks, preparing them for Christ, as the laws of the Jews prepared them for Christ.” [Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies] That is, Plato and Aristotle served to prepare the way for Christianity philosophically in a manner similar to the way Abraham and Moses had done so legally and theologically.

The belief in the sanctification of the pagan is undergirded by the belief that one can demonstrate the continuity of time and space, as it has been sanctified by the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of the Logos. For truth belongs to God, Dawson argued, whether codified in scripture or nature or even within elements of paganism. With the creation of the world, the natural law reveals much, though certainly not as much as direct revelation.

Natural Law provides a good example of what I mean by the comparative study of values. Our conception of Natural Law is peculiar to our own culture and represents a synthesis of Hellenic and Christian elements. But we can find parallel conceptions in the other cultures — notably in China, where the Confucian concept of nature and law and virtue provides a remarkable analogy. So too in India we have the ancient Vedic concept of rita, which parallels the Hellenic idea of Dike, and the later concept of Dharma, which has points of resemblance with the medieval concept of canon and natural law.
Dawson, “Memorandum,” dated July 25-28,1955

By being the Author of all societies and of the plethora of cults/cultures, Dawson argued, God placed a part of His Truth in each culture. Therefore, as each non-Christian culture encounters Christianity, it has some piece of the larger truth, allowing it to accept the full Truth of Christ’s Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection. Even “primitive religion is essentially an attempt to bring man’s life into relation with and under the sanctions of, that other world of mysterious and sacred powers whose actions is always conceived as the ultimate and fundamental law of life.” Sin, especially, and the need for redemption or purification manifest themselves strongly in primitive cultures, Dawson argued. [Dawson, The Dark Mirror]

Or, as Dawson’s fellow Augustinian, C. S. Lewis, explained with his usual succinctness, “Paganism does not merely survive but first really becomes itself in the v[ery] heart of Christianity.” [Lewis, Magdalen, to Dom Bede Griffiths, November 1, 1956, CSL Letters to Dom Bede Griffiths, Letter Index 36, in Wade Center Inklings Papers, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL] Further, Dawson noted, because history remains such a mysterious thing to man, “we must believe that every period of history and every human race and culture has its part to play in the progressive development of this process of spiritual creation.” [Dawson, "Memorandum," dated August 1, 1955]

Historically, one can find this understanding of paganism throughout the History of Christendom. Cardinal Newman offered several examples in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.

The use of temples, and these dedicated to particular saints, and ornamented on occasions with branches of trees; incense, lamps and candles; votive offerings on recovery from illness; holy water; asylums; holidays and seasons, use of calendars, processions, blessings on the fields; sacerdotal vestments, the tonsure, the ring in marriage, turning to the East, images at a later date, perhaps the ecclesiastical chant, and the Kyrie Eleison, are all of pagan origin, and sanctified by their adoption in the Church.
Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine

Perhaps the best scriptural example of the sanctification of the pagan comes from St. Paul in his attempt to convert the Athenians. While standing on Mars Hill, he congratulated the Athenians for being religious. Specifically, he noted how he was impressed with their statue to the “unknown God” Christ, he told them in no uncertain terms, was their unknown God. All their religion, philosophy, and culture had pointed them to Christ. Paul even quoted approvingly, though sanctifying the meaning, two pagan philosophers and poets, Aratus and Cleanthes, in Acts 17:28: “In him we live and move and have our being” and “For we are indeed his offspring.” [Scriptural commentary and analysis from The Navarre Bible, Gospels and Acts (Princeton, Scepter, 2002),]

Other examples of sanctification, following St. Paul’s attempt at Mars Hill, include St. Augustine’s sanctification of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero in the City of God; St. Thomas Aquinas’s sanctification of Aristotle; and even the Christian; monks who built their monastery on top of the highest mound/temple in Cahokia, Illinois, the former site of the priest-king of a vast Indian Empire. The monks of Cahokia were, themselves, following a very old western tradition, churches throughout Europe and North America sit on formerly sacred pagan sites. They, in essence, baptized the suspect ground, just as Augustine and Aquinas baptized pagan ideas.

Two problems, Dawson noted in his Gifford Lectures, could arise with the sanctification of the pagan. First, the reliance on natural revelation, natural theology, and the natural law may lead one — the human person or an individual culture — astray. One cannot accept natural theology, after all, as guide that is as sure as the truths revealed in scripture or through tradition. At the beginning of his Gifford lectures, for example, Dawson cites William Blake’s apocalyptic poetry approvingly. If man “has not the religion of Jesus he will have the religion of Satan, and will erect the synagogue of Satan, calling the Prince of this World, `God’, and destroying all who do not worship Satan under the name of God….

Deism is the worship of the God of the World by the means of what you call Natural Religion and Natural Philosophy, and of Natural Morality or Self-Righteousness, the selfish virtues of the Natural Heart. This was the religion of the Pharisees who murdered Jesus. Deism is the same, and ends in the same. [Dawson, Religion and Culture]On the following page Dawson wrote, “Religion is feeling and imagination: not reasoning and demonstration.” Dawson’s fear of natural theology also reflects St. Augustine’s fear of embracing too wholeheartedly that which came before Christianity. Many of the ancient gods, the venerable North African argued in the City of God, were actually demons disguised to fool men into making mischief. [Augustine, City of God, Book 2, Chapter 10]

Second, the Christian may fail to sanctify the pagan person, ritual, or culture fully. For Dawson, this became most obvious at the end of the medieval period, when the Church had failed to rid the barbarians (now Germans) of their nationalistic notions. Ultimately, the Germans were left with the choice presented so ably in the Arthurian legends: to choose the Grail or Guinevere, the continuation of the Word Incarnate or the lesser desire of the flesh, to be Galahad or Lancelot. With the Reformation and the destruction of Christian universalism, Dawson argued, Lancelot won. And, as a result, Germanic nationalism reared its frightful head and spread throughout Protestant Europe [Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture]

But no matter the dangers — and all actions in this world are potentially fraught with danger, Dawson believed — one must continue to sanctify the pagan, to redeem the time, and to remake the world for God’s Kingdom. For Dawson, this was the job of the Christian Humanist and the modern saint. As opposed to the Renaissance or secular Humanist, the Christian Humanist recognizes the profundity of Eternity entering Time, the Incarnation and the change in the nature and destiny of man.

Secular humanism seeks to glorify man as the highest being in the universe. “The men of the Renaissance had turned their eyes away from the world of the spirit to the world of color and form, of flesh and blood,” Dawson wrote. “[T]hey set their hopes not on the unearthly perfection of the Christian saint, but on the glory of Man — man set free to live his own life and to realize the perfection of power and beauty and knowledge that was his by right.” [Dawson, Nature and Destiny of Man] The Christian Humanist differs dramatically from the secular humanist. Rather than placing man at the center of the universe, he instead desires to identify the proper place for man in the universe.

The Christian Humanist, therefore, asks two fundamental questions: 1) what is the role of man within God’s creation; and 2) how does man order himself within God’s creation? “Humanism was a real historical movement, but it was never a philosophy or a religion,” Dawson explained. “It belongs to the sphere of education, not to that of theology or metaphysics. No doubt it involves certain moral values, but so does any educational tradition. Therefore it is wiser not to define humanism in terms of philosophical theories or even of moral doctrines, but to limit ourselves to the proposition that humanism is a tradition of culture and ethics founded on the study of humane letters.” [Dawson, Christianity and the Humanist Tradition]

It is, Dawson argued, the combination of Greek and Christian thought, taking the best of Aristotle and showing its continuity in St. Paul. The Church embraced Christian humanism at the Council of Jerusalem in 50 A.D. The real decision was made by the apostolic Church when it turned from the Jews to the Gentiles, from the closed world of the synagogue and the law to the cosmopolitan society of the Roman-Hellenistic world,” Dawson explained. It was St. Paul, though, “the first Christian humanist,” who provided the blueprint for the Church and the sanctification of the pagan at Mars Hill in Athens. “Humanism and Divinity are as complementary to one another in the order of culture, as are Nature and Grace in the order of being,” Dawson concluded. [Dawson, Christianity and the Humanist Tradition. Dawson was significantly influenced by the Russian theologian and philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev, and especially his book The Meaning of History]

It is the Spirit, though, that animates all life and culture. “The vital and creative power behind every culture is a spiritual one. In proportion as the spiritual element recovers its natural position at the centre of our culture will necessarily become the mainspring of our whole social activity,” Dawson wrote at the conclusion of his second book, Progress and Religion. “Since a culture is essentially a spiritual community, it transcends the economic political orders. It finds its appropriate organ not in a state, but in a Church. [Dawson, Progress and Religion] The only true progress comes when man recognizes himself as the spirit and flesh, and the culture as the joint product of Divine and human labor. “The process of redemption consists in grafting a new humanity on to the old stock,” Dawson explained, “and in building a new world out of the debris of the old.” [Dawson, Enquiries into Religion and Culture]


Christopher Dawson on Language and Myth – Bradley J. Birzer

September 24, 2012

The Pieta by Michelangelo. The structure is pyramidal, and the vertex coincides with Mary’s head. The statue widens progressively down the drapery of Mary’s dress, to the base, the rock of Golgotha. The figures are quite out of proportion, owing to the difficulty of depicting a fully-grown man cradled full-length in a woman’s lap. Much of Mary’s body is concealed by her monumental drapery, and the relationship of the figures appears quite natural. Michelangelo’s interpretation of the Pieta was far different from those previously created by other artists, as he sculpted a young and beautiful Mary rather than an older woman around 50 years of age. The marks of the Crucifixion are limited to very small nail marks and an indication of the wound in Jesus’ side. Christ’s face does not reveal signs of The Passion. Michelangelo did not want his version of The Pieta to represent death, but rather to show the “religious vision of abandonment and a serene face of the Son”, thus the representation of the communion between man and God by the sanctification through Christ.

While Dawson dealt with the issue of culture in all of his major writings, beginning in his first book, The Age of The Gods, a study of primitive religions’ and cultures, Dawson offered his most developed understanding of culture in his Harvard University lectures. Published in part in the mid-1960s as The Formation of Christendom, Dawson drew on his own lifetime of scholarly thought and research and embraced a solidly Aristotelian view of the social, world. Aristotle had famously written in his Politics that man is by nature a social animal, meant to live in community. To leave community, a man must become either a beast or a god, but he can no longer remain human.

A man’ may not live outside his cultural inheritance, Dawson wrote, paraphrasing Aristotle, without becoming an “idiot, living in a private world of formless feelings, but lower than the beasts.”[Dawson, Formation of Christendom] Not even offering the Aristotelian alternative of becoming a God, Dawson further noted that culture is the means by which “men have learned from the past” through “the process of imitation,” education and learning and to all that they hand on in like manner to their and successors.” .”[Dawson, Formation of Christendom]

With St. John, Dawson proclaimed the importance of the Word to the human person as well as to history and culture. As “little words” — that is, human persons as imago Dei – humans pass on their civilization through the rational use of language. Language allows human societies to inherit and then transmit what is known and what is believed. Against those who see war as the great precipitator of cultural evolution, Dawson claimed all true progress comes from the proper use of language. “The word,” he wrote, “not the sword or the spade, is the power that has created human culture.”[Dawson, Formation of Christendom] The sword protects the word, Dawson claimed, and the spade supports the word. ,lust as God spoke the universe into existence, man, created in His image, speaks culture into existence, tying the generations within time, but simultaneously also across time. Only through language can man store wisdom and understanding, building upon what was learnt and uncovered by previous generations, passing it on to future generations. “Language is the foundation of social life,” Dawson wrote. [Dawson, "Culture and Language”]

An intimate relationship, of course, exists between language, tradition, and reason. “Language, which is essential to Reason,” Dawson explained, “is itself essentially traditional, and I should say that it is in the creation of tradition, unless indeed it is a miraculous gift or invention,” an idea which Dawson would not dismiss. [Dawson, "Memorandum," dated July 11, 1959]Language provides a framework for reason. Specifically, God communicates through tradition, a gift that proves “inaccessible to Reason.” In addition, argued Dawson, “the individual who denies the authority of language and the other fundamental forms of human culture is thereby debarred from the use of reason, which is essentially bound up with communication. He is,” Dawson concluded, “an idiot.” Further, as

[L]anguage is essential to Reason, so the Word of God is essential to Faith. Granted the fact of Revelation, Reason is still insufficient as the vehicle of its transmission. For this, it is necessary to have the Sacred Word of Scripture and the sacred society of the Church, which is the bearer of the Sacred Tradition. The Holy Spirit in the Church is to the Word of God, what human Reason in the tradition of culture is to the Word of Man. The Spirit is the Interpreter as well as the verifier.
[Dawson, "Memorandum," dated July 11, 1959]

Throughout history, one finds a correlation between God’s revelation and man’s development of language. Dawson therefore concluded that the order of grace and the order of nature are intimately connected. [Dawson, "Memorandum," dated July 11, 1959] Following Aquinas, Dawson argued that grace remakes and perfects nature. “The Christian concept of Revelation does not simply involve the intelligibility of a spiritual reality but a change in the nature of the creature which renders divine communication possible,” he argued in 1959. [Dawson, Correspondence to Ruth Anshen, November 7, 1959]

Because each culture and person represents a singular image of God and God’s revelation, reason unaided can never be universal, but, instead, must be culturally specific. “In every culture men possess the power of reasoning as they possess the power of speech, but the content of their reasoning is different as the knowledge that they possess depends on the culture to which they belong,” Dawson argued. [Dawson, The Relation of Philosophy to Culture, dated September 7, 1955]

Language also enables man to wield his most powerful tool for survival as a species, that is, through the imagination of the culture and the individual human person, as best expressed in myth. “I believe the old myths are better not only intrinsically, but because they lead further and open a door into the mind as well as into the past,” Dawson noted in his autobiographical writings, entitled “Tradition and Inheritance.” Myth, Dawson forcefully argued, “was the old road which carries us back not merely for centuries but for thousands of years; the road by which every people has traveled and from which the beginnings of every literature have come.” [Christopher Dawson, Tradition and Inheritance: Reflections on the Formative Years (St. Paul, MN: Wanderer Press, 1970)]

When discussing the best historiographical methods to understand pre-Norman England, for example, Dawson argued in favor of giving the Celtic legends their due. “It is true that considerable difference of opinion exists as to the date and historical value of the oldest Welsh poetry, but even if we put them at the lowest, there can be no doubt that they embody an ancient and genuine folk tradition which had its origin in the dark age of post-Roman Britain,” he wrote in a critical book review. “These relics of a submerged tradition are no less worthy of our historical study than the remains of Saxon cemeteries and village sites, and I the more so in that they are a faint but living voice from a lost world, which brings to us an echo of the impression that the events of the age of conquest left in the memory of the British people.” [Christopher Dawson, The Making of Britain, Tablet (1936]

If archeological evidence allows one to study the material side of man’s nature, the mythological allows one to comprehend, at least in substantial part, his spiritual nature. Myth, properly defined, is simply the supernatural working in history. Additionally, myth is a universal truth that repeats itself in some form or particular variation for every people and every time. History, Dawson conceded, is “not a flat expanse of time, measured off in dates, but a series of different worlds.” Each world possesses its “own spirit and form and its own riches of poetic imagination.” [Christopher Dawson, Backgrounds and Beginnings, A.D., vol. 1]

One should not be surprised, Dawson concluded, that the British people chose Arthur, not Alfred or Harold, as “the central figure of national heroic legend.” [Dawson, The Making of Britain] After all, Dawson believed, the British love lost causes and extreme opposition in the face of doing what is right; it remains a fundamental part of their national character.

One sees the importance of myth and language not just in stories, but in names and in the naming of things. In Genesis, for example, God gives man Alone the ability to name things on this earth, to categorize, and to serve as a steward over creation. From a Jewish or Christian perspective, naming is synonymous with controlling. One also finds this outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In many primitive religions, for example, especially among Native Americans, shamans usually considered the knowledge of names as equivalent to the control over the things named. In fact, such an understanding of names can be found in almost every culture throughout world history.

Language also serves as the unifier not only of a people over time, but also for an immediate and generational community as well. Hellas provides a good example in the larger abstract understanding of the importance of language as a unifier. It was through language that the Mediterranean became Hellenized, adopting Greek culture, art, philosophical abstractions, and cultural symbols. Jesus of Nazareth, the Word Incarnate in Christian theological terms, was born into this language and culture. But it was also a culture of many cultures, in flux.

As a Jew, Jesus lived in a world controlled militarily and dominated economically by the Roman Empire, itself significantly Hellenized. Even the name `Jesus” was a Greek name, for example, the equivalent of the Aramaic, Joshua. Jesus’ most traveled disciple, St. Paul, walked safely on Roman roads and spoke Greek, spreading the new religion throughout the Mediterranean, specifically in the Greek isles and throughout the Roman boot. When St. John wrote his Gospel, he used the Stoic concept, the Logos, the burning fire, love, or word, at the heart of all things, to describe the Divine Savior. In a letter discussing the implications of the Protestant Reformation and its dislike of the (reek and Roman inheritance, Dawson wrote:

It is certainly desirable that we should learn to know more about the ancient philosophical systems of China and India, but this does not mean that we should try to undo the work of the Fathers and of St. Thomas by divesting the original Hebrew thought of Our Lord of its rationalist `Greek dress’. For where are we to begin? The Church used the categories of Greek thought to define the dogmas of the Faith and the Gospel itself has been transmitted to the world in a’Greek dress.’ It is the mission of the Church to teach all nations, but she cannot disavow her own part and start her mission all over again. That was the great error of the Protestant Reformation, which attempted to abolish a thousand years of Catholic development and to construct a new model of evangelical Christianity on exclusively scriptural foundations.
Dawson, Hermitage, to unknown recipient, January 6, 1956

Therefore, the informed Christian must think beyond the mere Hebraic. To limit the Christian inheritance to the Jews and the Jews alone would be to retard the true development and very purpose of Christendom. “We do not believe, like the Protestants (or some Protestants) that the Bible is the only record of these dealings,” Dawson wrote. “On the contrary, the whole history of Christendom is a continual dialogue between God and man, and every age of the Church’s life, even the most remote and obscure, has some important lesson for us today.” [Christopher Dawson, Communications: Christian Culture, Commonweal, vol. 61 (April 1, 1955)]

No one person or generation — or even all persons and generations combined — has a full understanding of God’s purpose or of the Divine Economy. Yet each manifestation of God’s grace offers a new piece of the puzzle worth studying. Each person is a new and unique reflection of God, and each culture — as a network of minds — is a reflection of the Logos and the power of imagination. Each new created thing reveals more about the nature and Being of God. Not just the Jews, but the Greeks, Romans, and all other peoples are worth studying, as they, in their finite ways, reveal some singular aspect of the Infinite.

The Catholic understanding of the Divine Economy “is the acceptance of an organic world of spiritual realities into which man obtains entry not b his own right, but by `grace,” Dawson wrote in 1933. As a member of the Church, the Christian sees only the historic manifestation of Christ’s grace, Beyond the physical, earthly Church is the much greater part, not visible to our eyes. Hence, Roman Catholicism “attaches such immense importance to the doctrine of the Communion of Saints, the solidarity of the living and the dead in the common life of the One Body,” Dawson continued. [Christopher Dawson, The Future Life: A Roman Catholic View, The Spectator, vol. 151 (1933)] The; dead share in the communion with the living. “The men who died for the; faith in third-century Rome or sixteenth-century Japan are still partners in the common struggle, no less than those who are the leaders of Christian’s thought and action in our own days,” Dawson explained. [Christopher Dawson, Christian Culture: Its Meaning and Its Value, Jubilee, vol. 4 (1956)]

A negation or attenuation of this belief of continuity would also destroy the concept of mystery — intimately related to poetry, art, myth, and literature — which is central to the continued viability of any culture. Indeed, the first fruits of any proper culture are music and poetry. [Christopher Dawson, Education and the Crisis of Christian Culture (Chicago, IL: Henry Regenery Company, 1949] Poetry, especially, “is in its origins inseparable from prophecy, and among every people we find the figure of the inspired mantic poet at the threshold of its literary tradition.” [Dawson, Religion and Culture]

Though art often appears as abstract, Dawson claimed, a scholar can learn far more about a society and a people through a study of its arts than by all the economic statistics available. Quantifying is nothing more than a conglomeration of raw, disinterested, dry numbers and figures. And yet humans are diverse, unique, full of zest and passion. “We can learn more about mediaeval culture from a cathedral than from the most exhaustive study of constitutional law,” Dawson wrote, adding that “the churches of Ravenna are a better introduction to the Byzantine world than are all the volumes of Gibbon.” [Dawson, Dynamics of World History]

Even the farmer had traditionally been an artist. There is, after all, an “intimate communion of human culture with the social in which it is rooted,” and this becomes manifest “in every aspect of material civilization — in food and clothing, in weapons and tools, in dwellings and settlements, in roads and methods of communication.” [Dawson, Progress and Religion]To cultivate” and “agriculture” obviously have their roots in the culture. We moderns, though, Dawson feared, have become so used to a fragmented world that we see art as something high and high alone, to be placed in galleries, separated from work and ordinary life. It is therefore difficult for present-day scholars to conceive of art as anything more than exploitation and leisure for the elites. [Dawson, Dynamics of World History]

Education through myth, poetry, and art into one’s culture traditionally has provided an initiation into the divine mysteries, especially of the Divine Economy and the communion of the living and the dead. “It is only in the poetic imagination which is akin to that of the child and the mystic that we can still feel the pure sense of mystery and transcendence which is man’s natural element. [Dawson, Religion and Culture] Such a religious ordering, alone, allows us to order “life as a whole — the molding of social and historical reality into a living spiritual unity.” [Christopher Dawson, "Introduction," in Carl Schmitt, The Necessity of Politics: An Essay on the Representative Idea in the Church and Modern Europe (London: Sheed and Ward, 1931)]

It forces man to recognize that something greater than himself exists. It forces man to realize that he is a creature, not the Creator. It necessarily humbles man. Traditionally, the best means of Christian education and initiation has come through the liturgy, which combines the myth, poetry, and art of the Church into a drama, presented before the members of the Body of Christ.

In Christianity, on the other hand, the liturgy was the center of a rich tradition of religious poetry and music and artistic symbolism. In fact, the art of Christendom in both its Byzantine and medieval phases was essentially a liturgical art which cannot be understood without some knowledge of the liturgy itself and its historical origin and development. And the same is true to a great extent of popular and vernacular culture. The popular religious drama, which had such an important influence on the rise of European drama as a whole, was either a liturgical drama in the strict sense, like the Passion plays and Nativity plays, or was directly related to the cult of the saints and the celebration of their feasts. For the cult of the saints, which had its basis in the liturgy, was the source of a vast popular mythology, and provided a bridge between the higher ecclesiastical and literary culture and the peasant culture with its archaic traditions of folklore and magic.
[Christopher Dawson, The Institutional Forms of Christian Culture, Religion in Life, vol. 24 (1955)]

The other means, almost as important as liturgy, was monasticism, in which “religion and culture attain their complete fusion.” [Christopher Dawson, The Institutional Forms of Christian Culture, Religion in Life, vol. 24 (1955)]

Dawson, therefore, argued that the Protestant overemphasis on the Ju daic inheritance was dangerous on many levels. It focused too much on the worldly and on a non-complicated linear history, thus attenuating the level of hierarchy and mystery in Creation. It centered us too much in time. The Judaic was vital, of course, but so was the Greek and the Roman. “The history of the Jews is bound up with the history of the world, not with that of any single political or territorial unit,” Dawson understood, speaking before a largely Jewish audience at Brandeis University. “In every age they have had a particular task to perform, but this task is to be seen in relation to the world situation rather than as part of a continuous national tradition.” [Christopher Dawson, On Jewish History, Orbis, vol. 30]

But the earliest council, the Council of Jerusalem, presided over by Archbishop James, and the discussions of St. Paul in his letters to the earliest Christian churches, prove the need to move beyond the merely Jewish origins of Christianity and to embrace and sanctify all cultures. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ,” St. Paul wrote to the Christians of Galatia. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” [Galatians 3:27-28 (RSV).] Following these new, universal teachings, Christianity very quickly moved away from Jerusalem and a Jewish culture base.

In the West early Christian culture was predominately Greek. The Latin Christian culture was largely the creation of Africa — Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine. Here as in Asia Minor, there was a strong undercurrent of oriental culture (Punic) which was only extinguished by the growth of Christian culture, but in this case it was Latin not Greek that became the dominant element. So too in Gaul, the vernacular Celtic language of the Christian writers like Irenaeus. It was not till the Fifth century that Gallic Latin culture produced its characteristic literature, and by that time the Germanic peoples had become the ruling race, so that the Latin Christians in Gaul (and Spain) were in somewhat the same sociological position as the Syriac speaking Christians in the East. [Dawson to Mulloy Correspondence, June 20, 1960]

Further, the Jewish revolts of 66-70, 115-117, and 132-135 eroded the historic and theological ties between Judaism and Christianity. Christianity, then, does not just proceed from Judaism in some direct line; it explodes from Judaism, becoming universal.


Truthiness And Catholicism – Archbishop Charles J. Chaput

September 21, 2012

The roots of truthiness? “’When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean neither more nor less.’”

Stephen Colbert, the youngest of eleven children from an Irish Catholic family, created one of the shrewdest political satire television shows in recent years, The Colbert Report.

In his first appearance, Colbert launched the show’s trademark word: truthiness. He put it this way:

Now I’m sure some of the word police, the wordanistas over at Webster’s, are gonna say, “Hey, that’s not a word.” Well, anybody who knows me knows that I am no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist, constantly telling us what is or isn’t true; or what did or didn’t happen. I don’t trust books. They’re all fact, no heart. And that’s exactly what’s pulling our country apart today. Because face it, folks, we are a divided nation. Not between Democrats or Republicans, or conservatives and liberals, or tops and bottoms. No, we are divided between those who think with their head, and those who know with their heart … The truthiness is, anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.

Speaking out of character about modern political debate, Colbert later said: “It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that’s not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything … I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?” He added: “Truthiness is, `What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.’ It’s not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There’s not only an emotional quality, but there’s a selfish quality.”

People laugh because Colbert is right. Once upon a time, words had weight. Now they float. In the past, Americans understood equality as something basic that we all share before God and the law. Now it means that almost everyone feels anointed to have his or her views taken seriously, no matter how unfettered by fact, logic, civility, or common sense. Unfortunately, experience teaches the opposite. Some ideas are bad. Some opinions are foolish. Some feelings are vindictive. And some people lie. The American genius for marketing, however, is a neutral skill. It can sell sand in a desert, and cigarettes just as artfully as vitamins. So it becomes very important for citizens to think their politics, not feel them; to examine the language of public discourse for what the words really mean.

In his essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946), George Orwell observed that “one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.” Writing at the close of a world war that killed more than 30 million people, Orwell warned that the deliberate abuse of language had played a big role in the political collapse the world then suffered. If Joseph Stalin could claim to be a “democrat,” the word meant nothing at all; or even worse, the opposite of its original meaning. Orwell argued that, in the modern era, political language has become mainly a tool to obscure or defend the indefensible.

Orwell knew that words have power because they convey meaning. Words shape our thinking, which shapes our actions. Dishonest public debate with its misuse of words leads to bad laws and dangerous politics. When. the meaning of a word is subverted, it acts like a virus.

It infects other words and ideas. It spreads the habit of adjusting the facts and what they mean to serve predetermined political ends. In a different age, we called this lying. Now we call it spin. But whatever we name it, voter cynicism and a weaker democratic life are the result.

Massaging the facts to get elected — what candidates call “framing the issues” — is hardly new to American politics. It goes with the messiness of an open society. This is why George Washington and other founders spoke so forcefully about the need for a literate, educated citizenry. Democratic life depends on a people with the reasoning skills to see through the chicanery that often goes with political debate.

The new mass media that shape our views, however, have much more power than in the past. Americans now spend large parts of the day watching television, listening to the radio, or exploring the Internet. More books than ever are in print, but serious reading has declined.

This has political implications. Just as the American idea of human rights depends on a vocabulary shaped historically by religion, so does our political process depend on an ability to judge and reason shaped by the printed word and the culture it helped create. Reading cultivates the skills of abstract thought, mental acuity, and attention to the logical structure of a sentence. At its best, reading breeds an appropriately critical mind; that is, a mind able to sustain focus, judge information, imagine alternatives, and choose logically. It’s no accident that Tocqueville noticed two striking qualities about the newly independent Americans: their religious practice and their love of the printed word.

This doesn’t mean that electronic media are bad. In any case,, we can’t avoid them. But it does mean that we need to develop what Bertrand Russell called an “immunity to eloquence” as we experience them. In other words, we should know how the media work, and especially how they work on us. The “eloquence” of the new electronic media is their entertainment effect: their stress on brevity, energy, variety, emotion, and visual imagery. We need to remember that the form of information is part of its content. As Neil Postman once observed, every new. information medium is “not merely a machine but a structure for discourse, which both rules out and insists upon certain kinds of content and, inevitably, a certain kind of audience.” The new media breed and feed an audience — including voters — with little patience for complexity or sustained debate.

This is exactly the opposite of early American civic literacy. In the postcolonial years, most ordinary people not only could read and did read but eagerly joined in political debate. When Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote The Federalist Papers, they already knew that an educated citizenry wanted to read and debate them. A culture like this forms minds that can retain and weigh large amounts of conceptual information; minds able to follow arguments — even dense and abstract ones.

In an electronic culture, vast chunks of incoming in formation have no importance at all. They simply gum up our ability to distinguish and rank issues. Politics tends to dumb down into what Christopher Lasch called “ideological gestures.” A serious marketplace of ideas, a place where opposing views get fairly debated and the best course of action emerges as the winner, simply can’t survive in a climate ruled by the sound bite. “The problem,” Neil Postman wrote, “is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter, but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining.” Crime, war, public humiliation, sexual intimacy, pain, and political leadership — much of our experience of these things comes from watching them on network shows. We begin to judge their value by how prevalent they are on television and how well they hold our attention there.

The new media have two other key flaws. First, in their immersive effect, they obscure the large amounts of important information they don’t communicate. The need for brevity creates an artificial need for simplicity. Facts that don’t fit within the forms or appetites of the media often get ignored. But the real world, including human motives, is a huge and tangled place. Thus, despite a modern tidal wave of certain kinds of data, we actually live in what Bill McKibben famously described as an UnEnlightenment, an age of missing information.’

Second, in their persuasive effect, the new media instruct the public on how to think and what they need. Some of this subtle tutoring can be funny, especially in advertising. It led Neil Postman to see American television commercials as a form of “religious parables, organized around a coherent theology. Like all religious parables, [television commercials] put forward a concept of sin, intimations of the way to redemption, and a vision of Heaven.

They also suggest what are the roots of evil, and what are the obligations of the holy. George Orwell put it more bluntly when he equated consumer advertising with “the banging of a spoon in a swill bucket,” but the point is that selling a product, an idea, or a political candidate requires much the same skill set. Even major print-news organizations, while paying lip service to fairness, tend to frame complex stories in a streamlined and ideologically loaded way.

When Orwell wrote his 1946 essay on the political debasement of language, he spoke to a culture that was still largely typographic; that had been formed by the mental disciplines of print. The English language today has vastly more power because of the new technologies that carry it. Those same tools make it easier to mislead, confuse, and lie to citizens, and then coach them to smile while they’re being robbed.


‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ Lewis Carroll wrote those words more than a century ago in Through the Looking Glass, but Humpty Dumpty might do very well in public office today. Dissembling in political life is now a national habit. Mass media tools make it easy. If we love our country — and we have that duty as citizens – we must try to recover and insist on the real meaning of our public vocabulary. Truth, pluralism, consensus, choice, the common good, democracy, conscience, love, equal rights, tolerance — all of these words are now routinely misused in public debate to serve selfish or destructive ends.

Pluralism is a demographic fact. Nothing more. It is not a philosophy or ideology or secular cult. It does not imply that all ideas and religious beliefs are equally valid, because they’re not. We live in a diverse country. That requires us to treat each other with respect. This makes sense both morally and pragmatically. But “pluralism” does not require us to mute our convictions. Nor does it ever excuse us from speaking and acting to advance our beliefs about justice and the common good in public. Catholics who use “pluralism” as an alibi for their public inaction suffer from what the early church described as dypsychia. In other words, they’re ruled by two conflicting spirits. They may speak like disciples, but their unwillingness to act paralyzes their words.

Tolerance is a working principle that enables us to live in peace with other people and their ideas. Most of the time, it’s a very good thing. But it is not an end in itself, and tolerating or excusing grave evil in a society is itself a grave evil. The roots of this word are revealing. Tolerance comes from the Latin tolerare, “to bear or sustain,” and tollere, which means “to lift up.” It implies bearing other persons and their beliefs the way we carry a burden or endure a headache. It’s actually a negative idea. And it is not a Christian virtue.

Catholics have the duty not to “tolerate” other people but to love them, which is a much more demanding task. Justice, charity, mercy, courage, wisdom — these are Christian virtues; but not tolerance. Prudence too is a vital Christian virtue, the “right rudder of reason,” but not when we use it as a cover for political cowardice. Real Christian virtues flow from an understanding of truth, unchanging and rooted in God, that exists and obligates us whether we like it or not. The pragmatic social truce we call “tolerance” has no such grounding.

In like manner, building a consensus around laws and policies is usually a worthy goal. But whether such a consensus is good or evil depends on the content of the specific laws and policies. A consensus — which simply means the “agreement of the people” — is never a source of truth. It says nothing at all about whether a policy is good or a law is evil. In fact, a consensus is often wrong. A great many unjust wars and bad leaders have been very popular.

And this leads us to another brutalized word, democracy, which couples the Greek words demos (people) and kratos (power). Switzerland and North Korea both claim to be democracies. The latter’s official name is the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea. In the United States, however, democracy means “majority rule by the citizens through representative, constitutional government.” American democracy does not ask its citizens to put aside their deeply held moral and religious beliefs for the sake of public policy. In fact, it requires exactly the opposite. People are fallible. The majority of voters can be uninformed or biased or simply wrong. Thus, to survive, American democracy depends on people of character fighting for their beliefs in the public square — legally, ethically, and nonviolently, but forcefully and without apology. Anything less is a form of theft from the nation’s health.

Other key words in our political conversation suffer from the same vocabulary drift. Choice is worthless — in fact, it’s a form of idolatry — if all the choices are meaningless or bad. Our basic rights don’t emerge or exist in a vacuum. They come to us as endowments from our Creator, and we have obligations that go along with them. Community is more than a collection of persons with the same appetites or complaints. A real community requires mutual respect, a shared past and future, and submission to each other’s needs based on common beliefs and principles. It is not an elegant name for an interest group.

Nor is the common good merely the sum of what most people want right now. The “common good” is that which constitutes the best source of justice and happiness for a community and its members in the light of truth. In the mind of the Second Vatican Council, it includes all those conditions of social life that enable individuals, families, and organizations to achieve their true fulfillment (GS 74). This “true fulfillment” presumes that external, fundamental truths about human nature and meaning preexist us. We don’t invent those truths.

Finally conscience, as Cardinal Newman once said, “has rights because it has duties.” In Newman’s words, “We can believe what we choose. We are answerable for what we choose to believe.” As Catholics, we must act according to our conscience. But we should also remember that we all have great skill at self-deception when it suits us. Conscience is never merely a matter of personal preference or opinion. Nor is it a self-esteem coach. It is a gift of God; the strong, still, uncomfortably honest voice in- side us that speaks the truth if we let it. In fact, to continue with Newman,

the more a person tries to obey his conscience, the more he gets alarmed with himself for obeying it so imperfectly … But next, while he grows in self-knowledge, he also understands more and more clearly that the voice of conscience has nothing gentle, nothing of mercy in its tone. It is severe and even stern. It does not speak of forgiveness, but of punishment. It suggests to him a future judgment; it does not tell him how he can avoid it.

Conscience has the task of telling us the hard truth about our actions. The church has the task of expressing God’s love and leading us to salvation. For Catholics, “conscience” demands a mind and heart well formed in the truth of Jesus Christ. And these come foremost through the teaching of the Catholic faith. Obviously, faith is not a mathematical equation. People often face difficult issues in daily life. Some Catholics may find themselves sincerely unable, in conscience, to accept a point of Catholic teaching. When that happens, the test of a believer’s honesty is his humility; that is, his willingness to put the matter to real prayer and the seriousness of his effort to accept the wisdom of the church and follow her guidance. If after this effort he still cannot reconcile himself with the teaching of the church, he must do what he believes to be right, because ultimately, every Catholic must follow his or her conscience.

At the same time, we should remember that honest private decisions — the kind that come from hard self-examination — are very different from the organized, premeditated, public rejection of Catholic belief by persons who use their Catholic identity to attack what the Catholic faith holds as true.

Organized dissent in the name of “conscience,” especially in a media age that celebrates almost anyone who challenges authority, very easily — and much too conveniently — lends itself to vanity and evasion. It tribalizes Catholic life by turning the church into a battleground for interest groups and personal ego. In fact, one of the saddest qualities of the current American Catholic scene is that, when it comes to the meaning of Catholic, quite a few of us are Lewis Carroll fans without knowing it.

“’When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean neither more nor less.’”


Some Biographical Notes on Christopher Dawson

September 20, 2012

Photograph of actor Sir Alec Guinness standing with historian Christopher Dawson at Boston College-sponsored birthday party for Dawson on November 8, 1959.

Culled from the pages of Bradley Birzer’s wonderful biography, Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson.

Christopher H. Dawson has been called “the greatest English-speaking Catholic historian of the twentieth century.” He wrote about the cultural role of religion, the relationship between Christianity and world cultures, and the specific history and institutions of the Christian (particularly Catholic) religion. Despite this, most of his books (over twenty and numerous articles in the journals and magazines of his time) have been out of print for decades now, and graduate students today are ignorant of his work. The ignorance of academia toward Dawson is second only to its ignorance of G.K. Chesterton.


The Accidental Communities Of Dawson’s Life
The lack of an academic appointment, though, necessitated the absence of an academic community and its concomitant moral, spiritual, and financial support. This proved the most frustrating part of Dawson’s writing career, as he craved intellectual discussion and interaction. Equally important, his entire belief system informed him that while the individual human person, specifically the saint, did change history for the better, he did so as a part of — and within — much larger communities. At one level, those communities of the Church are rooted in a specific time, space, and culture. At another level, the most important community transcends time and space, calling all baptized souls as equals back to the One. Dawson knew he held full membership in the latter community.

One might also use Thomistic terms, labeling these respective communities accidental and essential. It was the former, the accidental communities, that seemed, often in his life, to elude and frustrate him. In a letter to Maisie Ward, Dawson confided that he wrote best when he felt himself a part of a purposeful community. “I have always felt the need of some common intellectual work for the church,” Dawson wrote. “First of all we had Essays in Order, and later on the Sword of the Spirit which, though not exactly intellectual, performed the same function for me.” Indeed, looking back over Dawson’s publishing history, he published his most and his best works when involved in some kind of purposeful community of friends and allies.

Dawson’s Friendships
None of this should suggest that Dawson did not have friends. He experienced numerous deep and profound friendships, mostly with writers, publishers and editors. Several of his closest friendships were with Bernard Wall, Barbara Ward, E. I. Watkin, David Jones, Harmon Grisewood, and Tom Burns, just to name an important few. Despite his often intense loneliness, he also had a loving relationship with his wife and children. Though he belonged to several social groups, as will be discussed below, he preferred to meet his friends socially one on one, rather than in large groups. His life, as Sheed wrote in his autobiography, was almost completely the life of the mind. “He lived more wholly in the mind than anyone I ever met,” judged Sheed. When Dawson encountered another, he often did so mind to mind, despite an intensely held spirituality.

Dawson’s Chronic Insomnia
The sheer amount of energy — anxious, grace-filled, or otherwise — that Dawson possessed often kept him up late into the night. He seemed to have suffered from chronic insomnia. `Just heard Kit [Dawson] put out his electric light. Poor Kit never sleeps without Sedormid & Co. [a sleep aid] and then hardly at all,” his friend David Jones reported. “Even I seem a regular bruiser with a fine swagger on me and a pipe in the hat of me compared with his health. I do wish he could be made well, he is so nice.” One daughter reported that Dawson’s “active mind could take no rest.”” There is no doubt as to the extensive activity of his mind. To write that it was highly gifted is trite and understated. “I won’t say he knew everything,” Frank Sheed conceded, “but there was nothing you could count on his not knowing.”

Dawson’s Library
His American patron, Charles Chauncey Stillman, believed that “Dawson’s knowledge was the most encyclopedic” he had “ever encountered” and understood Dawson to have a photographic memory and understated. “I won’t say he knew everything,” Frank Sheed conceded, “but there was nothing you could count on his not knowing.” His American patron, Charles Chauncey Stillman, believed that “Dawson’s knowledge was he most encyclopedic” he had “ever encountered” and understood Dawson to have a photographic memory.

One of Dawson’s most treasured possessions was the library he inherited from his uncle and then continued to build on his own. “The practice of havin}; volumes — and such splendid ones — in every room is, I think, an altogether wonderful idea: one not only has the world of learning at one’s fingertips, but at one’s elbows, coat tails, and collar button,” a visitor to the Dawson home wrote in 1954. “It is an old and hackneyed idea to have a library in one’s house; it is a new and rewarding idea to have a house in one’s library.”

McNaspy, a Jesuit who had traveled to Oxford in the late 1940s and studied under Dawson, recalled that his home in Devonshire was “a living library, with tens of thousands of volumes — old and new — on all phases of religion, itnthropology, sociology, ethnology.”

Even more impressive to the young Jesuit, Dawson “seemed never to forget anything he read.” On their first encounter, October 29, 1947, McNaspy was attending a lecture and discovered the insatiable curiosity of Dawson, who had never been to the United States, but knew every nuance of its -history. At the end of the lecture, McNaspy approached Dawson with some trepidation. “Oh, you’re from Louisiana,” Dawson said to the young priest. “Good. I’ve been wondering why it was that the see of the diocese moved from Natchitoches to Alexandria. Can you tell me?” Dawson asked. To which, McNaspy “gulped, muttered something,” and then “admitted I didn’t know, but thought it might be because Alexandria had become the larger city.”

A Truly “Catholic” Experience Of Scholarship And The Intellectual Life
Despite his personal insecurities in social relations, Dawson worked with others in a variety of small groups and in associations of friends, beginning in the early 1920s. One-on-one discussion or small-group discussion invigorated Dawson. Such interaction not only stimulated his own thought processes, but it also gave him a means by which to explore — in community — the various ideas he had developed while reading and researching on his own. Further, he believed group interaction necessary to provide a truly “Catholic” experience of scholarship and the intellectual life. God desired community, not radical individualism, Dawson argued. Just as the Church — itself the Body of Christ — went forth into the world as community, so must its citizens. As Dawson saw it, God proved this in the scriptural passages found in St. Matthew’s Gospel, known simply as the “Great Commission,” to go forth two by two and preach the gospel. This need for community proved as true in the intellectual endeavors of the Church as it did in her specific liturgical endeavors.

Dawson’s Interest In Economics
Dawson’s interest in economics as expressed in and around the theological arguments involving social stability and wealth — derived from his brief study in Sweden, his connection to LePlay’s sociology, and his respect for Catholic social teachings — continued throughout the late 1910s and 1920s. His other economic articles appeared in the Universe, a Roman Catholic newspaper, and in Blackfriars, a journal of the English Dominicans.

In each, Dawson argued for the private ownership of land by small farmers and peasants and a moral rather than utilitarian understanding of the market economy. The twin materialist philosophies of socialism and capitalism most threatened the institutions of property and the right to liberty, Dawson feared. “Socialism and Capitalism are, in fact, but two sides of the same development,” he wrote. “They represent the last stages of that revolt against the Catholic tradition, which began in the sixteenth century, and which affected by degrees every side of European civilization.”

Each “ism” is merely an attempt to replace the moral foundations of a spiritualized Christian society with the materialist laws of supply and demand, to make man economic rather than religious of cultural. Because God has given man dominion over the earth, even the material serves a spiritual and Godly purpose. Dominion, Dawson believed, does not mean domination and exploitation. Instead, man must act as a steward, receiving God’s creation as a gift to better the fallen world, through grace. “There is a mystery in all the processes by which the earth is brought to bear fruit for the support of man, and the one great end of sacrifice and spell and purification is to cooperate with the forces of nature in producing good harvests, numerous flocks and favorable seasons,” Dawson wrote. To exploit the gifts of God is nothing less than the mockery of God and the arrogant denial of His authority and His wisdom.

As with the economy as a whole, wealth is morally neutral in and of itself. It must never become an end, but only serve as a means to something greater. Ultimately, Dawson believed, wealth is only good if one uses it “as a vehicle of spiritual love.” One of the Church Fathers, St. Ambrose, had taken this argument to its logical conclusion. “What you give to the poor man is not yours but his. For what was given for the common use, you alone usurp. The earth is all men’s and not the property of the rich.”

Another Church Father, St. Basil, stated: “He who strips a man of his garments will be called a thief. Is not he who fails to clothe the naked when he could do so worthy of the same title? It is the bread of the hungry that you hold, the clothing of the naked that you lock up in your cupboard.” Each of these men followed the beliefs of the first Archbishop of Jerusalem, St. James. In his Catholic epistle, he wrote of the wealthy: “You have feasted upon earth: and in riotousness you have nourished your hearts, in the day of slaughter.”

Dawson, however, saw no contradiction between his views and those advocating a free society, properly understood. Capitalism, for Dawson, was not free. It meant the rule of the capitalists, businessmen who had gained control of the levers of political power. Instead, Dawson believed in the right to associate freely, one to another. “Economic life, as one of man’s many activities, must find its own social expression and form its own organs,” Dawson argued. “It must be ordered by the free association of individuals, not by a compulsory organization proceeding from the centre of political authority.” Only this will allow true order, as ordained by God.

For, Dawson wrote, should society divide itself between the rich and the poor, no hope can exist for an effective and stable social order in which the Church can thrive. “It is only bymore light, by spiritual leadership, and by the diffusion of ideas that such a disaster can be averted. It is from Catholics, above all, that such enlightenment should come.” Only Catholics have fully inherited the world reborn after the near death of the Graeco-Roman world. Catholics must “show the modern world that the true end of life for society, as for the individual, is something outside and above itself — the co-operation of spiritual beings in the service of God.”

Dawson And His Order Journal Circle
Inspired by their many conversations regarding art and the lack of beauty in the world, the Order men took the journal title from two sources. First, they found inspiration in the Aristotelian/Thomist understanding of order as that which recognizes its specific end or purpose and places itself in its proper sphere in the Divine Economy. Tellingly, the masthead quoted St. Thomas Aquinas from his Argument Against the Muslims.

According to established popular usage, which the Philosopher considers should be our guide in the naming of things, those are called wise who put things into right order and control them well,” the great medieval philosopher had written. Therefore, the Order men argued, all things — no matter how high or low they might seem — have a vital place in the Divine Economy, and, if ordered properly, will fulfill a necessary, Godly purpose. This, of course, would be God’s “utility,” as opposed to man’s utility.

God’s utility inherently promotes the dignity and uniqueness of each human person, created as imago Dei, while man’s utility merely serves the pleasure of the man or men in power. Nature, Aristotle wrote, makes nothing in vain. However, Aquinas added, only grace perfects nature. In other words, what God makes, God understands and loves. What man makes, man misunderstands and uses for his own purposes, purposes which at best are merely steps away from the diabolical.

Second, they took the idea of order from the eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish statesman and man of letters, Edmund Burke, who had stressed the need for the “moral imagination” — the ability to see clearly beyond the here and now into the reality of eternal forms — thus allowing one to order one’s soul, one’s present community, and one’s soul to the eternal community. Without the moral imagination, as Burke had argued, the human person lost his ability to order anything. Indeed, without the moral imagination,

A king is but a man, a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order. All homage paid to the sex in general as such, and without distinct views, is to be regarded as romance and folly. Regicide, parricide, and sacrilege, are but fictions of superstition, corrupting jurisprudence by destroying its simplicity. The murder of a king, or a queen, or a bishop, or a father, are only common homicide; and if the people are by any chance, or in any way gainers of it, a sort of homicide much the most pardonable, and into which we ought not to make too severe a scrutiny.

The Order Men attempted to pull Burke’s eternal understanding into created time. Beauty and imagination, they believed, led to truth. “We were up against, dismayed by, the hideous aesthetic expressions of modern religion,” Burns remembered. Though traditionalist and conservative in political, the theological, and philosophical beliefs, the Chelsea group demanded radically new forms of art and expression. If all things, properly understood, had an end that was good, then all new forms of art must be embraced and sanctified or a Christian purpose. The traditional or modern form could continue, but its essence must come into conformity with grace. This Burkean notion of the moral imagination and the rightly ordered soul, Burns remembered, first came to him through Maritain’s philosophia perennis, “a living tradition, over and against materialism in its myriad forms.”


The Sacrament of Penance

September 19, 2012

In 1985 the German Bishops’ Conference published an adult catechesis based on the Great Confession of Faith, the Nicene Creed. The editorial committee featured Walter Kasper and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. The following topic was part of its presentation:

Personal Penance
Through baptism and confirmation we become a new creation. Through the Eucharist we are united in the most intimate way to Jesus Christ and to one another. Nevertheless, we often experience in painful ways that we fall short in our following of Jesus Christ, that we even place ourselves in contradiction with what we as Christians should be and do according to God’s will. Instead of letting ourselves be led by the Spirit of Christ, we often follow the “spirit of this world”. Yet God’s mercy is greater than all sin and guilt. He offers even those who have fallen into serious sin after baptism another possibility for a change of life and for grace. This is the sacrament of penance. The Church Fathers often speak of it as a second, toilsome baptism, a second plank of salvation after the shipwreck of sin.

The attitude toward the sacrament of penance is now in a deep crisis. There are many causes for this, including many misunderstandings and many unhappy experiences at confession. Above all, though, many today have difficulties in recognizing their own failure as guilt before God, as sin. Many do not even speak of personal sin any more. Too often we look for guilt and failure, if we do so at all, only in “the others”, in our opponents, in the past, in nature, in our disposition, in the environment, or in circumstances. But when man no longer acknowledges his responsibility for himself and for his deeds, humanity itself is in danger.

This situation is all the more alarming because Jesus’ call to conversion is at the center of his message about the coming Kingdom of God. According to Mark, the call to repentance belongs to Jesus’ fundamental proclamation: “Reform your lives and believe in the gospel!” (Mark 1:15). Conversion and penance must be part of every Christian life. “Unless you change and become like little children, you will not enter the Kingdom of God” (Matthew 18:3). According to Jesus, all need this conversion, even the just who think they do not need it. “If we say, `We are free of the guilt of sin’, we deceive ourselves; the truth is not to be found in us” (1 John 1:8).

When Jesus speaks of a conversion, he is thinking chiefly — and in the Old Testament tradition of prophecy — not of external works, such as penance in sackcloth and ashes with fastings, mortifications, weepings, and lamentings, nor is he thinking only of inner self-examination, reflection, and a change of opinions. All these can be meaningful forms for expressing a conversion. But Jesus tells us that we should not make a show of our fasting through a somber face and a gloomy appearance (Matthew 6:16).

What is decisive in a conversion happens in a man’s heart, in the center and the depths of his person.

Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the Lord, your God
(Joel 2:12-13).

This conversion must take effect in doing good and in the concrete fulfillment of God’s will, especially the demands of justice and love. There is no returning to God without returning to one’s brothers and sisters. So the prophet exhorts us:

Wash yourselves clean!
Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes;
cease doing evil; learn to do good.
Make justice your aim: redress the wronged,
hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow
(Isaiah 1:16-17).

For Jesus, just as for the Old Testament prophets and John the Baptist, penance is essential in a real conversion. It is man’s fundamental change of direction, a turning away from evil and turning toward God. In this conversion, man must renounce the deceptive idols with which he thought to secure and fulfill his existence; he must seek the support and substance of his life in God alone. Conversion and faith are two sides of one and the same thing.

Of course, even the prophets encountered the dullness and hardness of man’s heart. Any conversion requires that God bestow a new heart on man (Jeremiah 24:7; 31:33). Conversion is not our work or our achievement. It is God’s gift. It is the grace of being allowed to begin anew. God must first turn to man in gracious mercy before man can turn toward God. Our conversion does not mean bringing God around and conciliating him. On the contrary, it is always a response to God’s preceding reconciliation. The definitive act of reconciliation happened when Jesus shed his blood “on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). In Jesus Christ, in his cross and Resurrection, God has reconciled the world with himself once for all (2 Corinthians 5:18 — 19), establishing peace through the blood of Christ (Colossians 1:20).

Such a conversion happens fundamentally in baptism, which is the sacrament of changed life and of the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38). Baptism means a renunciation of evil and a turning toward the salvation that God bestows on us through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. So baptism bestows on us once for all the new life in Christ, which must lead to our resisting sin and living for God (Romans 6:6-14). Conversion or, as we also say, penance is thus a constant task; it characterizes the whole life of the baptized Christian.

Of course, the Church early recognized that even the baptized succumb to temptation and fall away. She also knew, of course, that God is rich in mercy (Ephesians 2:4), bestowing the possibility of a new conversion on any sinner who is ready to change. St. Ambrose says that in the Church there are “water and tears: the water of baptism and the tears of penance”. Since the Church as a whole is “at once holy and in need of purification, [she] follows constantly the path of penance renewal” (LG 8).

The daily penance of Christians takes many forms. Holy Scripture and the Fathers emphasize three of them: fasting, praying, and giving (Tobit12:8; Matthew 6:1-18). They also name reconciliation with one’s neighbor, tears of penance, concern for the salvation of one’s neighbor, intercession of the saints, and love. The living Tradition of the Church has added the reading of Holy Scripture and the praying of the Our Father. There are also other faith-inspired ways for carrying out a change in one’s daily life — for example, change of attitude, common discussion about guilt and sin, gestures of reconciliation, brotherly confession, and brotherly confession.

Even certain forms of leading a spiritual life, such as the examination of conscience, the monastic “chapter of faults”, and discussion with a spiritual director, are forms of expression of penance. Nor should we forget the ethical consequences of a new orientation in life: change of one’s lifestyle, asceticism and manifold renunciation, works of charity, and works of mercy, atonement, and reparation.

All these forms of everyday penance must come together in the common celebration of the Eucharist. It is the “sacrifice which has made our peace with you” (Third Eucharistic Prayer), since it is the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ offered once for all. Assisting at Mass and especially receiving communion bestow forgiveness for everyday sin and preserve us from serious sins (DS 1638; NR 570). We are reminded of this by the fact that the celebration of the Eucharist begins with an act of penance. There are also other liturgical forms for the forgiveness of sins. Examples are the penance service, reflection and prayer, intercession the Church’s liturgy of the hours, and reading and meditation on Scripture

The penitential seasons and penitential days of the Church (Advent, Lent, Fridays) are special focal points of the Church’s penitential practice (SC 109-10). These times are particularly suited for spiritual exercises, days of recollection, penitential liturgies, fasting, and charitable deeds.

All the forms of penance enable the sinner to let himself be formed anew by the Spirit of Jesus Christ and to express this Spirit both in a personal penitential attitude and in works of penance. Every form of Christian penance must be moved at least incipiently by faith, hope, and love. So they all share a basic structure. Its elements are insight into one’s guilt, contrition for the deed committed or omitted, confession of guilt, willingness to change one’s life (including making reparation of damages), asking for forgiveness, receiving the gift of reconciliation, thanks for the forgiveness imparted, and living a life of new obedience. We travel the road of penance not as individuals, but in community with all members of the Church. This ecclesial dimension is best expressed in the sacrament of penance, where personal penance is sacramentally concentrated.

Sacramental Penance
The Gospels tell us that Jesus forgave individuals their sins: “Your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5; Luke 7:48). He also gave this authority “to men” (Matthew 9:8). The Church as a whole is to be a sign and an instrument of reconciliation. But this authority is given in a special way to the apostolic office which has been entrusted with the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). The apostle has been sent as an ambassador “for Christ, God as it were appealing through us. We implore you … be reconciled to God!” (2 Corinthians 5:20). The Church traces the authority to forgive sins granted to the ecclesiastical office back to the Risen Lord himself:

“Receive the Holy Spirit.
If you forgive men’s sins,
they are forgiven them;
if you hold them bound,
they are held bound”
John 20:22-23.

With Jesus himself, the forgiveness of sins always had a communal aspect also. Jesus reconciles sinners to God by taking them up into the meal fellowship with himself and with one another. The sinner isolates himself from God and from his brothers; through his sin, the community of God’s people is disrupted and his own life in holiness is injured.

That is why the sinner is excluded from full communion with the Church (1Corinthians 5:1-13; 2 Corinthians 2:5-11; 7:10-13). He can no longer partake fully of the Eucharist, the sacrament of unity and of love. In penance, the person changing his life must travel again along the way by which reconciliation first came to him. He must reconcile himself with his brothers in order to attain a new communion with God. Conversely, through the forgiveness of God, we are, “at the same time, reconciled with the Church”, whom we have wounded by our sins and who cooperates with our conversion through love, example, and prayer (LG 11).

The communal structure and ecclesial dimension of penance is best expressed in Jesus’ words to Peter: I will entrust to you the keys of the Kingdom of heaven. Whatever you declare bound on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatever you declare loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). These words hold for the Church as a whole (Matthew 18: 18). The words “binding and loosing; mean that whoever is excluded (to bind is to banish) from the community is also excluded from communion with God. Whoever is taken up into the community again (the banishment is removed, “loosed”) is also taken up by God into communion with him. Renewed reconciliation with the Church is the way to reconciliation with God, This was well expressed in the public penance of the ancient Church. So too the formula of sacramental absolution that has been obligatory since 1975 says, “Through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace.”

In its details, the sacrament of penance has had a long, complicated, and varied history. But the basic structure of this sacrament has always been twofold. Penance consists, on the one hand, of the acts of a changed life made possible by grace: contrition, confession, and satisfaction. On the other hand, it consists of the action of the Church. The ecclesiastical community under the leadership of the bishop and of the priests offers forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus Christ, laying down the necessary forms of satisfaction, praying for the sinner, and doing penance on his behalf, in order finally to impart to him full ecclesial communion and the forgiveness of his sins. The sacrament of penance is at once a thoroughly personal, individual act and an ecclesial, liturgical celebration.

So the Council of Trent teaches that the actions of the penitent in contrition,. confession, and satisfaction are “as it were, the matter of this sacrament,” while priestly absolution is its form (DS 1673; NR 647-48). The fruit of this sacrament is reconciliation with God and with the Church. It is often connected with peace and joy of conscience and with great consolation (DS 1674-75; NR 649).

We must still describe the individual elements of the sacrament of penance more exactly. For the penitent, contrition occupies the first place. Contrition is the “pain of soul and the detestation of sins committed, with the resolution to sin no more from then on”. Contrition is called “perfect” when it is motivated by the love bestowed by God (contrition out of love). It has the power to forgive venial sins; it also brings forgiveness of serious sins when it is connected with the firm resolution to make a sacramental confession. Contrition is called “imperfect” when it is motivated by a consideration of the hideousness of sin or by fear of eternal damnation and other punishments (contrition out of fear). Such an unsettling of one’s conscience can be a beginning that is later perfected by the gift of grace, especially by the imparting of the forgiveness of sin in the sacrament of penance. Of itself, though, contrition out of fear does not have the power to bring forgiveness of sins (DS 1676-78; N 650-51).

Confession of guilt, even considered in purely human terms, has a liberating and reconciling effect. By confession, man owns up to his sinful past, assumes responsibility for it, and opens himself anew for God and. for the community of the Church, thus opening the way for a new future. The Church teaches that confession is an essential and irreplaceable part of the sacrament of penance, by which the penitent subjects himself to God’s gracious judgment (DS 1679, 1706; NR 652, 665).

For that reason, it is necessary to confess those serious (or mortal) sins that the penitent remembers after careful examination of his conscience; the confession must adequately describe their concrete situation according to number, kind, and circumstances (DS 1707; NR 666). According to Church law, “all the faithful who have reached the age of discretion are bound faithfully to confess their grave sins at least once a year” (CIC can. 989). Although the confession of daily (or venial) sins, which do not exclude us from. communion with God, is not necessary, the Church recommends it. This so-called devotional confession is a great help for personal formation of conscience and growth in the spiritual life. It should be included at least in the observance of the Church’s penitential seasons.

In satisfaction, we make appropriate reparation for the damage caused by sin and for any scandal caused by it (e.g., restitution of stolen goods,’ restoration of another’s good reputation). At the same time, satisfaction gives us practice in a new way of life; it is a remedy against weakness. Penance should correspond so far as possible to the gravity and kind of sins. It can include prayer, sacrifice and renunciation, service to one’s neighbor, and works of mercy. Satisfaction is not some arbitrary act by which we earn forgiveness. It is rather the fruit and sign of a penance already affected and bestowed by the Spirit of God.

The priestly absolution in the sacrament of penance is something more than a proclamation of the gospel of the forgiveness of sins or a declaration that God has forgiven sins. It receives the sinner back into full ecclesial communion. And so it is a judicial act, as the Church’s teaching says, and belongs only to the one who is able to act in the name of Jesus Christ for the whole Church community (DS 1685, 1709-10; NR 668-69). The sacrament of penance is, of course, a gracious judgment in which God, the merciful Father, turns lovingly to the sinner through the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit.

The confessor is equally judge and physician. He should act as a father and a brother. He represents Jesus Christ, who shed his blood on the cross for the sinner. That is why the confessor should proclaim and interpret the message of forgiveness for the penitent, should help him to a new life by counsel, should pray for him, do penance on his behalf, and above all bestow on him the forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus Christ.

The new order for the “celebration of penance” (1974) provides three forms of the sacramental penitential celebration.

The celebration of reconciliation for individuals. Even this form should have a certain liturgical shape — a greeting by the priest, reading of a scriptural text, confession of sin, imposition of penance, prayer, priestly absolution, concluding doxology, and liturgical dismissal with priestly blessing. If pastoral reasons require it, the priest can omit or abbreviate some parts of the rite. The following parts, however, must always be preserved in their entirety: the confession of sin and the acceptance of the imposition of penance, the summons to contrition, the formula of absolution, and the dismissal. If there is danger of death, it is enough for the priest to say essential words of absolution: “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the, Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” In practice, however, this renewed form of the sacrament of penance has not yet been generally implemented.

The communal celebration of reconciliation with confession and absolution of individuals. In this form, individual confession and individual absolution are connected with a common penitential celebration as preparation and as common thanksgiving. The individual confession is thus embedded in a liturgy of the word with scriptural reading and homily, common examination of conscience and general confession of sin, praying of the Our Father and common thanksgiving. This common celebration expresses more clearly the ecclesial dimension of penance.

The communal celebration of reconciliation with general confession and general absolution. This form is permitted only when there is grave necessity, such as danger of death, It can also be used when there are not sufficient confessors to hear the confession of individuals in a fitting way within an appropriate amount of time, so that the faithful through no fault of their own would have to go without the grace of the sacrament and holy communion for a long time. This form presupposes the resolution to confess serious sins individually as soon as possible. The decision on whether there is grave necessity belongs to the diocesan bishop, in consultation with the other members of the bishops’ conference (CIC can. 961).

We should distinguish penitential liturgies in the narrower sense from these three sacramental forms of penance. The liturgies are an expression and a renewal of the conversion that took place at baptism. The people of God celebrates them in order to hear the word of God, which calls us to a change and renewal of life and which announces the redemption from sin through the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

A penitential celebration usually includes an opening (song, greeting, and prayer), readings from Holy Scripture (with interspersed songs or silences), a homily, a common examination of conscience, and a prayer for the forgiveness of sins (especially the Our Father). Sacramental absolution is not included. These penitential liturgies should thus not be confused with the celebration of the sacrament of penance.

Still, they are very useful for conversion and purification of the heart. They can foster the spirit of Christian penance, help the faithful to prepare for their individual confessions, deepen the sense of the communal character of penance, and lead children to penance. Such services can bring forgiveness of venial sins when there is a genuine spirit of conversion and of loving contrition. They should therefore have a place in the life of every community, especially during the Church’s penitential seasons.

The Church’s doctrine and practice of indulgences is closely connected with the sacrament of penance. An “indulgence” is the remission of the temporal punishment due to sins, the guilt of which has already been forgiven. An indulgence presupposes a personal conversion, the reception of the sacrament of penance (if serious sin is present), and the reception of communion (in the case of a plenary indulgence). An indulgence is granted by the Church, from the treasury of the merits of Jesus Christ and the saints, to those who perform certain assigned works (such as certain prayers or visits to pilgrimage Churches).

The doctrine and practice of indulgences is difficult for many Christians today to understand. In order to understand it more deeply, one must grasp its historical roots and its greater context.

Generally speaking, there have been indulgences in the Church from the beginning. As regards details, indulgences have a long history. In the ancient Church, the intercession of confessors (those who had borne great sufferings in the persecutions) played a great role. Since the temporal punishments for sin were “served” in the ancient Church by punishments of a specified length, indulgences were often spoken of in terms of “days”.

In their present form, indulgences date from the eleventh century. Since the early Middle Ages, they have often been connected with certain works of piety — participation in a crusade, pilgrimages to holy sites, certain prayers or good works. Examples are the Portiuncula Indulgence, the Jubilee Indulgence on the occasion of a Holy Year, and the All Souls Indulgence.

Indulgences were also often connected with financial donations for ecclesiastical purposes. This led to great abuses, especially in the Middle Ages. These abuses were an occasion for the beginning of the Reformation. In consequence, the Council of Trent thoroughly reformed the practice of indulgences and eliminated the abuses.

It maintained in principle, however, that indulgences are exceedingly beneficial for the Christian people. It therefore condemned those who declared indulgences to be useless or who denied the Church the right to confer indulgences. The Council wished rather to limit indulgences according to the ancient, proven custom of the Church, and to exclude all acquisitiveness (DS 183 5; NR 688-89). A doctrinal deepening of the teaching on indulgences and a practical renewal for the present were achieved by Pope Paul VI in his Apostolic Constitution on the Revision of Indulgences (1967).

For a deeper understanding of the doctrine of indulgences underlying the practice, one must first be clear that sin has a double consequence. Serious sin breaks communion with God and forfeits eternal life (the eternal punishment of sin). But it also wounds and poisons the union of man with God, as well as man’s life in the human community (the temporal punishment of sin). Neither punishment of sin is “dictated” externally by God; both follow intrinsically from the very essence sin. The remission of the eternal punishment of sin is effected in the forgiveness of the guilt and the restoration of communion with God.

Yet the temporal consequences of sin remain. The Christian must strive to accept these temporal punishments of sin from God’s hand in patient endurance of suffering, distress, toil, and finally in conscious acceptance of death. He should struggle to throw the “old man” and to put on the “new man” through works of mercy and of love as well as through prayer and different forms of penance (Ephesians 4:22-24).

The Church offers the Christian another path to tread in the gracious communion of the Church. The Christian who purifies and sanctifies himself with the help of God’s grace does not stand alone. He is a member of the body of Christ. In Christ, all Christians are one great communion. “If one member suffers, all members suffer with it” (1Corinthians 12:26). What is called the treasury of the Church or the treasury of grace is communal participation in the goods of salvation that Jesus Christ and the saints with the help of his grace have earned.

In granting an indulgence, the Church speaks on behalf of the individual Christian with her authority to bind and: loose as conferred on her by Jesus Christ. The Church authoritatively assigns the penitent a portion of the treasury of merits of Christ and the saints for the remission of sin’s temporal punishment. In doing so, the Church wants not only to aid the individual, but also to spur him on to works of piety, penance, and love. Since the faithful departed who are in a state of purification are also members of the one communion of saints, we can support them by way of intercession as they suffer the temporal punishment for their sin.

In Paul VI’s Apostolic Constitution mentioned above, the essence of the treasury of the Church is interpreted very fittingly. “It is not like a sum of goods which were amassed in the course of the centuries after the manner of material riches. Rather, it consists in the infinite and inexhaustible value that the atonement and merits of Christ, the Lord, have before God…. The treasury of the Church is Christ the Redeemer himself insofar as the satisfaction and merits of his work of redemption have their permanence and validity in him. Furthermore, the truly immeasurable, inexhaustible, and always new value that the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of all the saints possess before God also belong to this treasury. They have followed in the footsteps of Christ, the Lord; by his grace, they have sanctified themselves and completed the work entrusted to them by the Father. Thus have they worked their own salvation and contributed also to the salvation of their brothers in the unity of the mystical body” (NR 691).

A particular problem is posed by what is called a plenary indulgence, which is the remission of all the temporal consequences of sin. If it is to be effective in this perfect way, it presupposes a perfect disposition of a kind very infrequently found, except when a Christian gives his whole life back into the hands of God, his Creator and Redeemer, in the hour of death. The sacrament of the anointing of the sick and the indulgence for the dying have their place here.


Mythopoeia and Me – Derek Jeter

September 18, 2012

Mythopoetic thinking approaches cosmic reality first through a sure instinct that there exists a spontaneous accord between our spirit and that reality, then through the very quality which allows our spirit to grasp reality, not only from one specific and superficial viewpoint, but by means of a deep sympathy with its inner structure and its fundamental evolution.
Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought

I have a favorite poem that echoes experiences of mine. Did I have the experiences and recognize them in the poem or did I read the poem and then view my experiences through its powerful lens? Does it matter?  The verses I recall are part of a reverie on death written by Conrad Aiken many years ago. I met Mr. Aiken when I was 14 or so (also many years ago) and became familiar with his story thanks to my best friend’s father, the poet Charles Philbrick. Mr Philbrick has passed some 40 years ago but many of my fondest summer memories of my youth were spent at his house on Blackfish Creek in South Wellfleet MA, growing up as the fifth boy in his family.

His son Steve had asked him to tell us the story again of Mr. Aiken and I recall his watching me as the tale unfolded. While I recall the overall narrative, the son finding his mother dead, shot by his insane father, the telling was punctuated by the words “Shot dead” and delivered in such a manner that in the stunned silence that followed there was great appreciation for the story teller who had mesmerized us with the telling. Steve was immensely proud of his Dad and I know that I had completely fallen under his powers, which tickled his fancy further. See, he seemed to be saying: This is what poets do. Some forty years ago and I can still recall the moment.

Meeting Mr. Aiken some time later was anti-climactic and finding some of his poems in my 20s was another byproduct of my youth. Tetélestai was a poem I memorized and could speak from memory. I read it at my father’s funeral, although it had little to do with us and more with my own darkness and sense of abandonment and despair.

Listen! …It says: ‘I lean by the river. The willows
Are yellowed with bud. White clouds roar up from the south
And darken the ripples; but they cannot darken my heart,
Nor the face like a star in my heart! …Rain falls on the water
And pelts it, and rings it with silver. The willow trees glisten,
The sparrows chirp under the eaves; but the face in my heart
Is a secret of music… I wait in the rain and am silent.’
Listen again! …It says: ‘I have worked, I am tired,
The pencil dulls in my hand: I see through the window
Walls upon walls of windows with faces behind them,
Smoke floating up to the sky, an ascension of sea-gulls.
I am tired. I have struggled in vain, my decision was fruitless,
Why then do I wait? with darkness, so easy, at hand?
But tomorrow, perhaps… I will wait and endure till tomorrow!’…
Or again: ‘It is dark. The decision is made. I am vanquished
By terror of life. The walls mount slowly about me
In coldness. I had not the courage. I was forsaken.
I cried out, was answered by silence… Tetélestai!

I recalled it again when I read C.S. Lewis’ comments on mythopoeia: myths are ‘lies, he had thought and therefore worthless, ‘even though breathed through silver’. No,’ said Tolkien. ‘They are not lies.’ At that moment, Lewis later recalled, there was ‘a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining. We held our breath.’ Tolkien resumed, arguing that myths, far from being lies, were the best way of conveying truths which would otherwise be inexpressible. We have come from God, Tolkien argued, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbor, whereas materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to the abyss and to the power of evil.

Breathed through with silver… Rain falls on the water And pelts it, and rings it with silver. The willow trees glisten,The sparrows chirp under the eaves; but the face in my heart is a secret of music… I wait in the rain and am silent… At some point we realize with Lewis: “Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’.

Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a ‘description’ of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.”

Is this not when, slowly, inevitably, we begin to read Scripture spiritually – in the sense of “in the spirit” – and then comprehend the “totality of the one Scripture,” as Benedict XVI calls it, not merely the mass of details contained in the Bible, but precisely the Gestalt-like pattern that it expresses itself in, and constitutes all such details. This pattern, in and through its details, is meant to illumine and transform our lives — as if every word of the Bible were written for us personally.

“Myth is a narrative or story, but it is no mere fable or expression of infantile consciousness. Its referents are objective reality and the innermost experience of man’s subjectivity. Myth moves in both of these ultimate directions at once as it narrates the sacred history of the origin of the world and of man. How stories can convey truth in ways that elude ordinary rational thought is a question worthy of great wonder and meditation. But if stories in general have this power, myth is characterized by stories that deliver truth in the most refined and compact narrative form. There is therefore no tension between myth and truth.

As John Paul II writes, “Following the contemporary philosophy of religion and that of language, it can be said that the language in question is a mythical one. In this case, the term “myth” does not designate a fabulous content, but merely an archaic way of expressing a deeper content. Without any difficulty we discover that content, under the layer of the ancient narrative. It is really marvelous.”

It really comes about because human consciousness is fundamentally oriented to seeing ultimate reality as a unified whole and as essentially personal. The myth of the Fall is like this:  much great imaginative literature is merely an articulation and ramification of this myth, deepening our understanding of its meaning and of ourselves as well as regards the qualities and the condensation of the truths contained in it. It took me a long while, all the way through my 20s, 30s, 40s and 50’s before I came to see that the poetry and stories I so deeply loved was the same stuff of scripture.

The new age nitwit in me had challenged scripture with some impossible to satisfy historical critical standard that held its existence as fact in abeyance while not understanding what mythopoeia actually was. When I finally linked the two, I became me, a Christian man fully alive in Christ. I think differently now. Still the same stupid brain, I guess, but one that stands alongside a bend in the river as the rain pelts my umbrella, transfixed by the face like a star in my heart.


Faith: A Perspective From Hebrews 11 – Derek Jeter

September 17, 2012

David is a life-size marble sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The sculpture was part of a commission to decorate the villa of Bernini’s patron Cardinal Scipione Borghese – the Galleria Borghese – where it still resides today. It was completed in the course of seven months from 1623 to 1624. The subject of the work is the biblical David, about to throw the stone that will bring down Goliath, which will allow David to behead him. Relating to earlier works on the same theme, it is also revolutionary in its implied movement and its psychological depth.

Hebrews 11 is a discussion of faith with citations from the Old Testament of those who served as exemplars of the faith.

The opening statement of Hebrews 11:1 is used often as a definition of faith “Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.” “Assurance” elsewhere translated as the “substance” of things hoped for, connotes that the faith in a believer’s soul, a gift of God’s grace, actually brings this reality into his existence for him. The things hoped for are all of those blessings, temporal and eternal, that make up the inheritance of the faithful, the deposit of faith that rests with the Church: fides quae creditor, the objective content of faith.

The “conviction of things not seen” is one of the recurring themes of Hebrews 11 as “the invisible.” The creation was made of things “invisible”; Noah was warned of “things not seen as yet”; Abraham’s inheritance was invisible at the time he went out; the eternal city is invisible. So it was also for the blessings of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, as conveyed in succession to their sons, and always with regard to things invisible; and here it is recorded that Moses’ epic adventures of faith were achieved by means of a faith in the invisible God.

Thus, this roll-call of faith is presented for the primary purpose of showing the means of their triumph, faith in the invisible, which is but another way of saying faith in the supernatural. The modern Christian too is confronted with exactly the same challenge: Christ is invisible The result of Moses’ faith in the invisible God was that the king of Egypt no longer inspired him with fear, thus proving that the more people fear God the less they fear any man, however powerful.

The “conviction of things not seen” are also echoed in these words from St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:6-13 about the wisdom of eternal life:

“The true wisdom of eternal life is the contemplation of the profundities of God, which the Spirit of God alone knows and of which, through faith and in faith, God causes a mysterious knowledge to come down upon us when we have reached the perfect age of the Christian.

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written:

‘No eye has seen,
no ear has heard,
no mind has conceived
what God has prepared for those who love him’
But God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.”

John Paul II in Fides et Ratio comments on a twofold order of knowledge that the gift of faith creates within us, this “mysterious knowledge” that Paul was speaking of previously:

“The First Vatican Council teaches then, that the truth attained by philosophy and the truth of revelation are neither identical nor mutually exclusive: “There exists a twofold order of knowledge, distinct not only as regards their source, but also as regards their object.

With regard to the source, because we know in one by natural reason, in the other by divine faith. With regard to the object, because besides those things which natural reason can attain, there are proposed for our belief mysteries hidden in God, which, unless they are divinely revealed, cannot be known. Based on God’s testimony and enjoying the supernatural assistance of grace, faith is of an order other than philosophical knowledge which depends upon sense perceptions and experience and which advances by the light of the intellect alone.

Philosophy and the sciences function within the order of natural reason; while faith, enlightened and guided by the Spirit, recognizes in the message of salvation the “fullness of grace and truth” that echoes from John 1:14: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

There follows in Hebrews 11 a number of citations beginning with a reference to creation and then moving in verse four to a consideration of Abel. In this and all subsequent references to the Old Testament exemplars the words are intoned “By faith…” I read a commentary on Hebrews 11 that reviewed not only what was in Hebrews 11 but on what was left out, “the glaring omission of the name of Adam, the mighty progenitor of the human race.”

God walked in the garden in the cool of the evening and called, “Adam, where art thou?” And where is he? He is lost, disinherited, sentenced to eternal death, tortured by the knowledge of what he should be haunting his pitiful consciousness of what he is. It is not of Adam that we speak, but of his race. “Where art thou?” The words live forever, calling people to consider, to view their hopeless estate, and to move toward that reconciliation that is possible through Christ.”

Our peril, and the peril of our race, is that the human intellect is free to either destroy itself or to reject God’s grace as the pitiful Adam did by trying to hide.  There is a great deal written about the relationship of faith to reason. My favorite, G.K. Chesterton, begins by telling us that

“Just as one generation could prevent the very existence of the next generation, by all entering a monastery or jumping into the sea, so one set of thinkers can in some degree prevent further thinking by teaching the next generation that there is no validity in any human thought.” I would submit that we are part of several generations now that does precisely that; witness how our current secular orthodoxy embraces the relativism of the age.

Chesterton saw this happening, too, in his time. He pointed out that “It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. If you are merely a skeptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, “Why should ANYTHING go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? Aren’t they both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?” The young skeptic says, “I have a right to think for myself.” But the old skeptic, the complete skeptic, says, “I have no right to think for myself. I have no right to think at all.”

In Verse 6 the author of Hebrews 11 states “And without faith it is impossible to be well-pleasing unto him; for he that cometh to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that seek after Him.” In Pensées 781, Pascal notes that in Isaiah 45:15, the prophet speaks of a hidden God: “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel.” Pascal explains the Hidden God concept in Pensées 149:

“If God had wished to overcome the obstinacy of the most hardened he could have done so by revealing himself to them so plainly that they could not doubt the truth of his essence, as he will appear on the last day with such thunder and lightning and such convulsions of nature that the dead will rise up and the blindest will see him. This is not the way he wished to appear when he came in mildness.

Because so many men had shown themselves unworthy of his clemency, he wished to deprive them of the good they did not desire. It was therefore not right that he should appear in a manner manifestly divine and absolutely capable of convincing all men, but neither was it right that his coming should be so hidden that he could not be recognized by those who sincerely sought him. He wished to make himself perfectly recognizable to them.

Thus wishing to appear openly to those who seek him with all their heart and hidden from those who shun him with all their heart, he has qualified our knowledge of him by giving signs which can be seen by those who seek him and not by those who do not. There is enough light for those who desire only to see and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition.”

Peter Kreeft in his commentary on Pascal elicits three answers as to why God is not more obvious:

  1. He wants to give us time to repent. Scripture says this in several places, Luke Chapter 13: 6-9: “Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He (the gardener) replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
  2. He wants to effect a true relationship with us, not one merely of intellectual belief but of personal faith, hope, love and trust. Dulles’ says that the principal act of Faith is to believe. Here is a thought from Kreeft that I love: “The propositions of lovers are different from the propositions of syllogisms.” So, you see it’s not all Reason in some sort of scientific, philosophical or logical sense. Romano Guardini tells a story of a friend to whom he would turn for help when being challenged by a scriptural passage or caught up in trying to understand his faith. The friend would tell him: “But Love does such things!” and they would both laugh, because they knew they were back to the truth.
  3. God is both love and justice; if he manifests himself truly it cannot be without love or without justice. His love led Him to save all who will have Him, and his justice led him to punish those who will not have Him. Thus He respects our free choice. He deprives the damned only of the good they do not desire. Hell is contained in God’s claim that “you will find me when you seek me with all your heart” [Jeremiah 29:13] This claim is not refuted or fairly tested if we do not fulfill our part of the experiment by seeking.”

    More than anything else, God wants us to care. It may be even more important than to know, “For it is the only way to know the most important things: yourself, your soul, your identity, your purpose, your destiny and your immortality. If we are indifferent instead of seeking we simply will not find, that is, we will not be saved.” I submit to you with all my heart an observation I just absolutely know to be true: Hell is not populated by passionate rebels but by very nice, bland, indifferent, respectable people wearing tasseled loafers and pants suits who simply never gave a damn.


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