Archive for the ‘Great Men Of the Church’ Category

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Two John Henry Cardinal Newman Meditations

July 4, 2014
Born in 1801, baptized in the Church of England, Newman became a Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford in 1822, an Anglican clergyman in 1825 and Vicar of the Oxford University Church in 1828. The Anglican Newman was a pastor of souls, a University teacher, and a student of Christian history and theology. His studies were never purely theoretical. Informed by pastoral experience, they were above all shaped by his insight into the needs of the present.

Born in 1801, baptized in the Church of England, Newman became a Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford in 1822, an Anglican clergyman in 1825 and Vicar of the Oxford University Church in 1828. The Anglican Newman was a pastor of souls, a University teacher, and a student of Christian history and theology. His studies were never purely theoretical. Informed by pastoral experience, they were above all shaped by his insight into the needs of the present.

Jesus Christ, Yesterday, and Today, and the Same Forever
All things change here below. I say it, O Lord; I believe it; and I shall feel it more and more the longer I live. Before your eyes, most awesome Lord, the whole future of my life lies bare. You know exactly what will befall me every year and every day until my last hour. And though I know not what you see concerning me, so much I know: that you read in my life perpetual change. Not a year will leave me as it found me, either within or without. I never shall remain any time in one state.

How many things are sure to happen to me, unexpected, sudden, hard to bear! I know them not. I know not how long I have to live. I am hurried on, whether I will it or not, through continual change. O my God, in what can I trust? There is nothing in which I dare trust; nay, if I trusted in anything of earth, I believe for that very reason it would be taken away from me. I know you would take it away, if you had love for me.

Everything short of you, O Lord, is changeable, but you endure. You are ever one and the same-ever the true God of man and unchangeably so. You are the rarest, most precious, the sole good; and withal you are the most lasting. The creature changes, the Creator never. The creature stops changing only when it rests in you. On you the angels look and are at peace; that is why they have perfect bliss. They never can lose their blessedness, for they never can lose you. They have no anxiety, no misgivings because they love the Creator; not any being of time and sense, but “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday and today, who is also for ever” (Hebrews 13:8).

My Lord, my only God, Deus meus et omnia, let me never go after vanities. Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vani­ tas (Ecclesiastes 1:2). All is vanity and shadow here below. Let me not give my heart to anything here. Let noth­ ing allure me from you; oh, keep me wholly and entirely. Keep this most frail heart and this most weak head in your divine keeping. Draw me to you morning, noon, and night for consolation. Be my own bright light, to which I look, for guidance and for peace.

Let me love you, O my Lord Jesus, with a pure affection and a fervent affection! Let me love you with the fervor, only greater, with which men of this earth love beings of this earth. Let me have that tenderness and constancy in loving you which is so much praised among men, when the object is of the earth. Let me find and feel you to be my only joy, my only refuge, my only strength, my only comfort, my only hope, my only fear, my only love.

An Act of Love
You are the Supreme Good. And, in saying so, I mean not only supreme goodness and benevolence, but that you are the sovereign and transcendent beautifulness. I believe that, beautiful as is your creation, it is mere dust  and ashes, and of no account, compared with you, who are the infinitely more beautiful Creator. I know well

therefore that the angels and saints have such perfect bliss be­ cause they see you. To see even the glimpse of your true glory, even in this world, throws holy men into an ecstasy.

And I feel the truth of all this, in my own degree, because you have mercifully taken our nature upon you and have come to me as man. Et vidimus gioriam ejus , gloriam quasi Unigeniti a Patre,  “And we saw His glory, the glory as it were of the only begotten of the Father” (John 1:14). The more, O my dear Lord, I meditate on your words, works, actions, and sufferings in the Gospel, the more wonder­ fully glorious and beautiful I see you to be.

And therefore, O my dear Lord, since I perceive you to be so beautiful, I love you and desire to love you more and more. Since you are the one Goodness, Beautifulness, Gloriousness in the whole world of being, and there is nothing like you, but you are infinitely more glorious and good than even the most beautiful of creatures, therefore I love you with a singular love, a one, only, sovereign love. Everything, O my Lord, shall be dull and dim to me, after looking at you. There is nothing on earth, not even what is most naturally dear to me, that I can love in comparison with you. And I would lose everything whatever rather than lose you. For you, 0 my Lord, are my supreme and only Lord and love.

My God, you know infinitely better than I how little I love you. I would not love you at all except for your grace. It is your grace that has opened the eyes of my mind and enabled them to see your glory. It is your grace that has touched my heart and brought upon it the influence of what is so wonderfully beautiful and fair.

How can I help loving you, O my Lord, except by some dreadful perversion, which hinders me from looking at you? O my God, whatever is nearer to me than you, things of this earth, and things more naturally pleasing to me, will be sure to interrupt the sight of you, unless your grace interferes.

Keep my eyes, my ears, my heart from any such miserable tyranny. Break my bonds, raise my heart. Keep my whole being fixed on you. Let me never lose sight of you; and, while I gaze on you, let my love of you grow more and more every day.

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G. K. Chesterton on Rallying the Really Human Things 2 — Vigen Guroian

June 27, 2014

[The] cosmos may be farcical or it may be pathetic but it has not [even] the dignity of tragedy.

[The] cosmos may be farcical or it may be pathetic but it has not [even] the dignity of tragedy.

Vigen Guroian is Professor of Religious Studies in Orthodox Christianity at the University of Virginia and the recipient of the University of Virginia Student Council Distinguished Teacher Award for 2010-2011. Vigen and his wife live in Culpeper, Virginia on five acres of rolling countryside where they enjoy tending their large perennial and vegetable gardens, keeping bees, and strolling down a wooded “Wordsworthian Walk” of their own creation. 

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Chesterton observes that secular humanism “is using, and using up, the truths that remain out of the old treasury of Christendom.” The deposit of moral truths set adrift by a disintegrating Christendom is thus gradually degraded, reduced to ideological half-truths and sappy clichés.

The modern world is not [wholly] evil. [Indeed], in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered . . . it is not merely vices that are set loose. . . . But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly [than the vices], and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.

Consider the Christian virtue of charity, for example. Instead of the selfless seeking of another’s good, charity becomes sugary sentiment. It is invoked to deny that forgiveness entails judgment and repentance, or that sin even exists. In due course, secular humanism may rob or empty all of the virtues of their true and vital meaning.

The final outcome of such a process can be seen in what has been done to the religious notion of the dignity of human life. It has been uprooted from its biblical ground and the garden of the church. Its deep human meaning, nurtured by the Christian doctrine of the imago Dei, withers and fades from memory. A desiccated concept of human dignity is embraced instead. And ironically, or rather tragically, that concept is deployed to justify acts that contradict traditional moral teaching.

Chesterton says that the humanism of the secularist leads morality down a perilous path, a path that he tells us in Orthodoxy is paved with pragmatism and relativism. Man is told “to think what he must and never mind the Absolute.” “But precisely one of the things he must think,” adds Chesterton, “is the Absolute.” Otherwise, the whole of the rest of the world is an illusion. Both pragmatism and relativism embrace an outlook “just as inhuman as the determinism” to which they often vehemently object. “The determinist (who, to do him justice, does not pretend to be a human being) makes nonsense of the human sense of actual choice.”

But pragmatism and relativism “make nonsense of the human sense of fact.” The road they pave leads to the devil’s version of the Emerald City, where nothing is what it seems, words are no longer tools of truth but instruments of raw power, and the moral compass is abandoned because there are no true poles of good and evil or right and wrong.

This suicide of thought, as Chesterton calls it, leads inexorably toward the denial of the existence of the good — or of anything that is really and permanently human. In 1905, in a book titled Heretics, Chesterton anticipates with uncanny prescience what postmodernism at the turn of the twenty-first century boldly declares. “Modern morality,” he writes, seems only capable of making a case for itself by pointing out “the horrors that follow breaches of law.”

Premarital sex may be inadvisable because one risks pregnancy or AIDS. One probably shouldn’t lie because lying undercuts the social trust that is the precondition for getting what one really wants. All of these “prohibitions” are subject, of course, to alteration or negation if means may be found to avoid negative consequences. In other words, modern morality is consequentialist. More than that, it is morbidly consequentialist, having lost a sure vision of the goodness of goodness.

In the end, images of automobile accidents, pictures of people dying from AIDS, and photographs of aborted fetuses won’t necessarily stop people from drinking and driving, engaging in casual or “unprotected” sex, or escaping the inconvenience of having a child by having an abortion. At the Creation, God did not say: I will make the seas with clean water, not polluted water, and the land arable and not desert because it would be a disaster for the environment otherwise. He made the seas clean and the land habitable because it was good that they be so. A vision of the good has far greater power to move men and women to do the right thing than all the horrible images we may conjure up to terrify them into doing it.

In Heretics, Chesterton observes: “A young man may keep himself from vice by continually thinking of disease. He may keep himself from it also by continually thinking of the Virgin Mary. There may be question about which method is the more reasonable, or even about which is the more efficient. But surely there can be no question about which is the more wholesome.” 

Modern people, he says, have grown so modest about the good that they no longer believe they can be certain of what it is. Erroneous notions of tolerance are fostered by secular humanism in its final stage as it gives itself over to nihilism. Even ordinary people voice the opinion that our principal moral obligation is not to believe too strongly in any moral conviction.

“A great silent collapse, an enormous unspoken disappointment has, in our time, fallen on our . . . civilization,” writes Chesterton. “All previous ages have sweated and been crucified in an attempt to realize what is really the good man. [Yet] a definite part of the modern world has come . . . to the conclusion that there is no answer to these questions.” Under the aegis of secular humanism, an idea which is inherently absurd gains support: that human flourishing may be achieved without defining what is human or what is good for human beings. Chesterton continues:

Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk the problem of what is good. We are fond of talking about “liberty”; that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about “progress”; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond about talking about “education”; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. The modern man says, “Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.” This is, logically rendered, “Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.”

He says, “Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress.” This, logically stated, means, “Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.” He says, “Neither in religion nor in morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.” This, clearly expressed, means, “We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.”

Many would agree that Chesterton has got hold of something disturbing about the modern temper. His diagnosis, prescient in his own time, is confirmed in ours. What drew the venom of his adversaries and continues to offend many is his prescription. Secularism needs to be replaced by faith, he says unabashedly, and relativism by firm standards of right and wrong. In the simplest terms, Chesterton proposes a return to dogma, a proposal that sounds exceedingly strange to moderns, who think that tolerance and an indiscriminant commitment to “diversity” are the highest goods of civilized life.

Joseph Wood Krutch on the modern temper I want to explore what a return to dogma means and what its importance is for Chesterton’s Christian humanism. But before doing so, it may be useful and instructive to examine in counterpoint the views of one of Chesterton’s younger contemporaries. In perhaps his best-known book, titled The Modern Temper and published in 1929, the American literary and social critic Joseph Wood Krutch ruthlessly flayed the illusions of the liberal humanism of his day, illusions to which he himself had earlier adhered.

In that book, Krutch concluded that the collapse of Western civilization is inevitable, even if the course is long and winding. Krutch’s analyses of the modern crisis shared much in common with Chesterton’s. But whereas Chesterton saw through the crisis to hope, Krutch crouched in despair.

Krutch’s despair is especially poignant because he understands its source. His liberal and secular creed does not permit belief in the truths and verities of traditional religion. Liberated reason must do without dogma. Krutch also recognizes the terrible irony in this situation. For without faith and certitude, there is no stopping the new barbarians who are knocking down the fortress walls of the civilization he loves. With melancholic honesty Krutch writes in his book’s foreword:

I have neither celebrated the good old days nor attempted to prove that mankind is about to enter a golden age. I am sure that those who hold conventional religious opinions will find my book in many ways offensive and I fancy that many who are militantly rationalistic will be disgusted by my failure to share their optimism concerning the future of a rationalistic humanity. . . .

Certainly if any modern temper like that herein described does actually exist it is very different from that scientific optimism, which, though it is being widely popularized at the present moment, really belongs to nineteenth century thought and certainly one of its most distinguished features is just its inability to achieve either religious belief on the one hand or exultant atheism on the other.

Unlike their grandfathers, those who are its victims do not and never expect to believe in God; but unlike their spiritual fathers, the philosophers and scientists of the nineteenth century, they have begun to doubt that rationality and knowledge have any promised land into which they may be led.

There is something at once noble and pathetic about this declaration. For Krutch concedes that he himself has contributed to the subversion of the foundations of liberal society. This is because he and other secular liberals are unable to believe in or to commend to others the truths and moral principles that inspire a free society and give men and women reasons to defend it. “The world may be rejuvenated in one way or another, but we will not,” Krutch confesses. “Skepticism has entered too deeply into our souls ever to be replaced by faith, and we can never forget the things which the new barbarians will never need to know.”

Scientific enlightenment, says Krutch, makes it no longer possible to hold to the classical and biblical belief that the virtues participate in a larger transcendent purpose. Human ignorance and fear imagined a meaningful universe masked in mystery and headed toward salvation; we must now conclude that the universe is impersonal and indifferent to human purpose or suffering. “It is no longer [possible] to believe or tell tales of noble men because we do not believe that noble men exist [nor the gods they would obey]. The best we can do is achieve pathos and the most that we can do is to feel sorry for ourselves. . . . [The] cosmos may be farcical or it may be pathetic but it has not [even] the dignity of tragedy.” The human cause, says Krutch, “is a lost cause . . . [as] there is no place for us in the natural universe.” But for the stoic Krutch, “we are not, for all that, sorry to be human. We should rather die as men than live as animals.”

In the final analysis, Krutch’s humanism collapses upon itself. The humanist who values human freedom so highly ironically subverts freedom’s transcendent foundations with a deadly embrace of naturalism or radical historicism. Under either, freedom is an illusion, much as God is a projection of the human mind. We are left to believe and behave as if there is more than there really is—that our humanity is special and our freedom is real—because to believe and act in any other manner would be unpleasant. “We have discovered the trick which has been played upon us,” Krutch declares, “and . . . are [at least] no longer dupes.”

A return to dogma
So far as I am aware, Chesterton did not review The Modern Temper. But let me speculate as to how he might have answered Krutch. I suspect that Chesterton would have begun by observing that Krutch rejects religious revelation and truth too hastily. Even as he claims that theism has been irreversibly demythologized, Krutch himself is caught in the myth of secularist liberalism. He is like a man blindfolded who thinks that the object of his criticism has disappeared, or like the child who thinks that he has hidden from his playmates by covering his eyes with his hands. In The Modern Temper, Krutch criticizes both Chesterton and T. S. Eliot for taking “refuge” in Roman and Anglican Catholicism, “whose dogmas, if accepted without argument, provide the basis which pure reason cannot discover.”

However, if one reads Chesterton carefully and fairly (and Eliot as well) one sees that his diagnosis of modernity is neither romantic nor reactionary. Chesterton knows that Christendom is gone and that the church no longer stands at the center of culture. Indeed, he chides those who continue to think triumphantly that England is still a Christian nation. 

Nowhere does he suggest that his aim is to put the old Christendom back together again, in England or anywhere else. Krutch’s honesty and despair, in fact, support Chesterton’s contention that secular humanism at the ship’s helm has at great peril thrown overboard the spiritual ballast of civilized life and broken religion’s moral compass. As the ship rocks and tips to the deep, the humanist’s talk of there being “no precise moral ideals . . . [sounds] ludicrous.” For progress cannot be charted without sure points of reference and a compass.

Chesterton writes:

I do not . . . say that the word “progress” is unmeaning; I say that it is unmeaning without the previous definition of a moral doctrine, and that it can only be applied to groups of persons who hold that doctrine in common. Progress is not an illegitimate word, but it is logically evident that it is illegitimate for us. It is a sacred word, a word that could only rightly be used by rigid believers and in the ages of faith.

Here, surely, is the nub of the matter. Chesterton’s turn to dogma is not what it sounds like to the ears of secularists, modern and postmodern. He does not say that we must believe in dogmas or else the worst. He does not force dogma down our throats. He does not offer dogma as a bulwark against regress or decline. Rather, dogma—religious truth affirmed in consensus, established in authority, and declared as norm in public debate— is bound to reemerge precisely because human beings cannot live and prosper in a world in which truth is thought not to exist. In Heretics Chesterton explains:

Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense . . . becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined skepticism, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding to no form of creed and contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.

A postmodern world requires a Christian humanism grounded in philosophical realism. Chesterton judges that people are ready for it, for a fraud has been perpetrated. The skeptics contradict themselves. They oppose dogma dogmatically and deny their own humanity in doing it. They claim to be empirical but deny the testimony of lives lived in faith. The seeds of suspicion they sow can also sprout, however, into fresh seedlings of belief.

When will we know that the rally for the really human things has begun in earnest? With the return of dogma, of course. And Chesterton is as sure of a return to dogma as he is that birds need air in which to fly and that fish need water in which to swim. At the close of Heretics, he sounds what Robert Royal has called “the battle charge for the kind of struggle” that must necessarily ensue if humanity is to avoid the abyss of postmodern nihilism and return to a God-centered vision of human nature and destiny.

This is what Chesterton says:

Truths turn into dogmas the instant that they are disputed. Thus every man who utters a doubt defines a religion. And the skepticism of our time does not really destroy the beliefs, rather it creates them; gives them limits and their plain and defiant shape. . . . We who are Christians never knew the great philosophic common sense which inheres in that mystery until the anti-Christian writers pointed it out to us.

The great march of mental destruction will go on. Everything will be denied. Everything will become a creed. It is a reasonable position to deny the stones in the street; it will be a religious dogma to assert them. It is a rational thesis that we are all in a dream; it will be a mystical sanity to say that we are all awake. Fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four. Swords will be drawn to prove that leaves are green in summer. We will be defending not only the incredible virtues and sanities of human life, but something more incredible still, this huge impossible universe which stares us in the face. We shall fight for the visible prodigies of the invisible. We shall look on the impossible grass and the skies with a strange courage. We shall be those who have seen and yet have believed.

Chesterton challenges us with one final paradox. Without dogma, there is merely descent into chaos and nothingness. With dogma, we may become demons in bellicose combat over many truths and many gods. For in a sinful world dogma comes into combat with dogma. Nevertheless, dogma, the right dogma, may also enable us to be godlike, to recognize ourselves as creatures made in the image of the one God who must live in the unity of his truth revealed in the flesh of a man who lived twenty centuries ago.

Contrary to so much of what claims to be Christian in our culture, we are called to believe not in order to gain peace but to know the truth. Dogma is religious truth, but it hardly guarantees peace. The first and last lesson of Christian humanism is this: by our own efforts alone, we cannot sew together the cloth of peace from our sinful and tattered human nature. Real peace, like real humanity, is a transcendent gift, which we will enjoy only when we wholly accept and faithfully obey the God who has become really human.

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G. K. Chesterton on Rallying the Really Human Things 1 — Vigen Guroian

June 26, 2014
Chesterton’s life straddled the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This provided him a vantage point from which to see the line that was being crossed in his time. The old idealistic liberal humanism born of the Renaissance and Enlightenment was giving way to a militant, anti-theistic secularism, whose child is nihilism. He judges that all of the principal spheres of culture, the family, education, economic life, and politics are being hollowed out and vacated of moral conviction by the solvent of rationalism and the blindness of positivism. I do not think that he would have been surprised by the radical historicism, skepticism, and relativism espoused by contemporary postmodernists like Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty and embraced naïvely by many ordinary people today.

Chesterton’s life straddled the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This provided him a vantage point from which to see the line that was being crossed in his time. The old idealistic liberal humanism born of the Renaissance and Enlightenment was giving way to a militant, anti-theistic secularism, whose child is nihilism. He judges that all of the principal spheres of culture, the family, education, economic life, and politics are being hollowed out and vacated of moral conviction by the solvent of rationalism and the blindness of positivism. I do not think that he would have been surprised by the radical historicism, skepticism, and relativism espoused by contemporary postmodernists like Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty and embraced naïvely by many ordinary people today.

Vigen Guroian is Professor of Religious Studies in Orthodox Christianity at the University of Virginia and the recipient of the University of Virginia Student Council Distinguished Teacher Award for 2010-2011. Vigen and his wife live in Culpeper, Virginia on five acres of rolling countryside where they enjoy tending their large perennial and vegetable gardens, keeping bees, and strolling down a wooded “Wordsworthian Walk” of their own creation.  For many years I kept this essay as a “page,” on prominent display at payingattentiontothesky. The contrast of Christian and secular humanism seemed to me to be acutely important.

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We need a rally of the really human things; will which is morals, memory which is tradition, culture which is the mental thrift of the fathers.” That was the judgment of G. K. Chesterton some seventy years ago in an essay titled “Is Humanism a Religion?” In order to rally the really human things, Chesterton proposed a new Christian humanism, while he simultaneously warned of the dangers and deceptions of a popular secular humanism that behaved as if it were a religion.

Chesterton distinguished this modern secular humanism from a much older tradition of Christian humanism, with which he strongly identified. The headwaters of this Christian humanism are the writings of such ancient church fathers as Basil of Caesarea and John Chrysostom, Saint Augustine and Gregory the Great. The stream is replenished by such late-medieval and early-Renaissance figures as Dante, Erasmus, and Thomas More. Chesterton extols the efforts of these humanists. “I doubt,” he writes, “if any thinking person, of any belief or unbelief, does not wish in his heart that the end of medievalism had meant the triumph of the Humanists like Erasmus and More.”

In recent decades “secular humanism” has become a term of opprobrium among conservative Christians who identify it with the forces they believe are undermining the religious foundations of Western civilization. Chesterton’s criticism is aimed more specifically at the philosophical outlooks of significant writers of his own time, including Aldous Huxley, George Bernard Shaw, and H. G. Wells. He admires all of these men for their often insightful social criticism and their literary talent. But he ultimately rejects their brand of humanism because it is entirely anthropocentric.

True humanism, argues Chesterton, is theocentric. Christian humanism honors the fact that, though created of dust, the human being is the only creature made by God in his very own image and likeness. Christian humanism answers humankind’s need to be redeemed from a fallen condition in which this image is tarnished, and in which death works like a rust that destroys even the most beautiful bronze statue.

Because it knows the difference between God and man and the effects of sin, Christian humanism rejects the spurious notions of human progress and perfection espoused by secular humanists. Christian humanism builds upon the human person’s “inner-directedness” toward the transcendent. It nurtures and disciplines this yearning (eros) for the divine life—for truth, goodness, and beauty—that God has planted in every human being.

Christian humanism is grounded in the doctrine of the Incarnation and gains its special character from that doctrine. God in Christ affirms our enfleshed and historical existence and gives meaning to it in spite of death. Within human culture and through the elements of this material world—bread and wine, oil and water, flesh and blood—the incarnate Son saves us body and soul from sin and death. God has given human beings compelling reasons to labor with him and within and through this physical world to redeem the whole of creation.

These Christian facts, Chesterton agues, are the inspiration of Christian humanism, which stands in contrast to man-centered philosophies of life that embrace matter to the exclusion of spirit, or else reject the material world in a flight to something deemed “spiritual.” Such secularist philosophies are not necessarily atheistic, but they cannot sustain either faith in a personal God or belief in the dignity, freedom, and eternal worth of the human person. The loss of this faith is the principal symptom, argues Chesterton, of the decline of the Christian paradoxical imagination.

The loss of the Paradoxical Vision and the Crisis of Secular Humanism
In the introduction to his edited volume The New Religious Humanists, Gregory Wolfe argues that in the history of Western culture “religious humanism has made only infrequent appearances and has rarely occupied center stage.” He explains that it “is a mode of thought that tends to arise when cultural cohesion is threatened by large social and intellectual upheavals.”

He regards the time in which we live as one such moment. Wolfe adds that Christian humanism mediates the human and divine and the temporal and the eternal through paradox and thus avoids the Gnostic proclivities of secular ideology.

On the face of it, the term religious humanism seems to suggest a tension between two opposed terms — heaven and earth, so to speak. But this is a creative, rather than a deconstructive, tension. Perhaps the best analogy for understanding religious humanism comes from the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, which holds that Jesus was both human and divine. In the paradoxical meeting of Christ’s two natures is the pattern by which we can begin to understand the many dualities we experience in life: flesh and spirit, nature and grace, God and Caesar, faith and reason, justice and mercy.

Chesterton is perhaps the most articulate twentieth-century practitioner of this Christian paradoxical imagination. He judges that a serious breakdown of the fundamental moral suppositions deposited by biblical faith and the classical tradition is underway and accelerating. He believes that this declension is due to a loss of conviction in our culture about the reality of the Incarnation—that God truly became a human being in Jesus Christ—with all the import that that event has for human existence.

For Chesterton, the doctrine of the Incarnation is the hinge that holds together what is, for the Christian, a vision of the world that is essentially paradoxical. And he is astonishingly adept at employing this vision in his cultural criticism and Christian apologetics. The Incarnation sheds light where sin deceives and despair darkens the human horizon. Sin causes us to experience spirit in opposition to matter, faith in conflict with reason, life defeated by death. But the Incarnation reveals these apparent contradictions as paradoxes.

Contradiction may signal futility, but paradox is pregnant with the possibility of resolution and harmony. Paradox is an ally of truth. The good news of the Christian Gospel is that the God who is spirit became flesh, that infinite being became finite existence, that the immortal One became mortal man in order that death might be undone and humanity drawn into eternal life.

God in his being and act unties the Gordian knot of sin. The errors of pagan religion and the falsehoods of atheistic and antihuman secularism are exposed by the Incarnation and replaced by its paradoxical truth. This divine and human truth opens a way for man, an alternative to the escape of the soul from matter and time or the embrace of mere flesh and finitude in a courtship with personal extinction.

Chesterton believes that the collapse of this wonderful vision of man in his relation to both heaven and earth lies at the heart of the modern crisis of meaning. Indeed, what makes Chesterton instructive today is that he lived on the cusp of postmodernity. Modernity was the result of a five-hundred-year process in which the dual Christian truth about the dignity and degradation of human existence, illuminated by the Incarnation, held together by the paradoxical imagination, was split apart. 

Secularist humanism emerged from this fractured truth and has not known how to put it back together, even when it has desired to do so. It seems doomed, rather, to fly from one pole of that truth to the other. On the one hand, it seeks to affirm, through some form of idealism or other, the “divinity” of human life, yet it rejects the doctrine of the Incarnation. On the other hand, it is drawn toward the opposite pole of naturalism and relativism and forgets the crucial difference between finitude and sin—and the distinctions between error and contravention of higher law.

Chesterton sums up:

Where is the cement which made religion corporate and popular, which can prevent [humanism] falling to pieces in a debris of individualistic tastes and degrees? What is to prevent one Humanist wanting chastity, and another truth, or beauty without either? The problem of an enduring ethic and culture consists in finding an arrangement of the pieces by which they remain related, as do the stones in an arch. I know of only one scheme that has thus proved its solidity, bestriding lands and ages with its gigantic arches, and carrying everywhere the high river of baptism upon an aqueduct to Rome.

In its late-Renaissance and Enlightenment origins, secular humanism is still a “mitigated” Christian humanism in which God is driven to the borders of human life and enterprise. Grace is redefined as “the supernatural varnish of those acts whose perfect rectitude the reason of the upright man suffices to assure,” notes Jacques Maritain. Eventually, nature becomes the sole norm, as perfection entails not a transcendent participation in the life of God but is rather completely imminent. The modern idea of progress emerges, justified by an unquestioning faith in reason and modern science. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this secular humanism embraces a complete human autonomy that needs neither God nor grace.

Chesterton’s life straddled the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This provided him a vantage point from which to see the line that was being crossed in his time. The old idealistic liberal humanism born of the Renaissance and Enlightenment was giving way to a militant, anti-theistic secularism, whose child is nihilism. He judges that all of the principal spheres of culture, the family, education, economic life, and politics are being hollowed out and vacated of moral conviction by the solvent of rationalism and the blindness of positivism. I do not think that he would have been surprised by the radical historicism, skepticism, and relativism espoused by contemporary postmodernists like Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty and embraced naïvely by many ordinary people today.

In Orthodoxy, Chesterton quips:

“At any street corner we meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Everyday one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table, leave aside making a sure distinction between right and wrong.”

He concludes that secular humanism is the gathering “place” of forces that undermine the really human things and open the gates for antihuman ideologies dressed in shepherd’s clothes. This new humanism is especially subversive and damaging to Christian faith and Western culture because it is parasitic. It exploits and expends the religious and moral capital of biblical faith and is incapable of replenishing that capital.

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Pascal: The First Modern Christian Part 3 by Fr. Edward T. Oakes

June 4, 2014
In 1642, in an effort to ease his father's endless, exhausting calculations, and recalculations, of taxes owed and paid (into which work the young Pascal had been recruited), Pascal, not yet 19, constructed a mechanical calculator capable of addition and subtraction, called Pascal's calculator or the Pascaline. Of the eight Pascalines known to have survived, four are held by the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris and one more by the Zwinger museum in Dresden, Germany, exhibit two of his original mechanical calculators. Though these machines are pioneering forerunners to a further 400 years of development of mechanical methods of calculation, and in a sense to the later field of computer engineering, the calculator failed to be a great commercial success. Partly because it was still quite cumbersome to use in practice, but probably primarily because it was extraordinarily expensive the Pascaline became little more than a toy, and status symbol, for the very rich both in France and elsewhere in Europe. Pascal continued to make improvements to his design through the next decade and he refers to some 50 machines that were built to his design.

In 1642, in an effort to ease his father’s endless, exhausting calculations, and recalculations, of taxes owed and paid (into which work the young Pascal had been recruited), Pascal, not yet 19, constructed a mechanical calculator capable of addition and subtraction, called Pascal’s calculator or the Pascaline. Of the eight Pascalines known to have survived, four are held by the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris and one more by the Zwinger museum in Dresden, Germany, exhibit two of his original mechanical calculators. Though these machines are pioneering forerunners to a further 400 years of development of mechanical methods of calculation, and in a sense to the later field of computer engineering, the calculator failed to be a great commercial success. Partly because it was still quite cumbersome to use in practice, but probably primarily because it was extraordinarily expensive the Pascaline became little more than a toy, and status symbol, for the very rich both in France and elsewhere in Europe. Pascal continued to make improvements to his design through the next decade and he refers to some 50 machines that were built to his design.

Originally over in the PAGES section which I am now rewriting while redoing my old PAGES as posts. Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches in the Religious Studies Department at Regis University in Denver, Colorado. This is a remarkable article on Pascal that was carried by First Things a few years back.

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This craving for distraction is so overriding and exigent that for Pascal it actually constitutes the driving force of ambition. In one sharply worded paragraph in the Pensées, he asserts that the main joy of being a king is the opportunity it affords for endless distraction, since courtiers are continually trying to keep the king’s mind off his mortality and provide him every kind of pleasure. “A king is surrounded by people whose only thought is to divert him so that he might be kept from thinking about himself, because, king though he is, he becomes unhappy as soon as he thinks about himself.”

But what applies to the ambitions of a king applies equally well to the motivations of all men. We crave distractions because we do not want to face the realities of the human condition. And because we are unwilling to admit our despair, we perforce cannot face the thought of applying the appropriate balm to heal these unacknowledged wounds. Consequently we hurl ourselves into an endless round of diversions, jobs, hobbies, etc., all to avoid our nature as thinking reeds:

Man is obviously made for thinking. Therein lies all his dignity and his merit; and his whole duty is to think as he ought. Now the order of thought is to begin with ourselves, and with our Author and our end. But what does the world think about? Never about that, but about dancing, playing the lute, singing, writing verse, jousting and fighting, becoming a king, without ever thinking what it means to be a king or to be a man.

Like Kierkegaard and Heidegger after him, Pascal was an acute student of boredom, and saw in this phenomenon (actually rather puzzling when one thinks about it) the clue to the very pathos of the human condition. Generally speaking, says Pascal, “we think either of present woes or of threatened miseries.” But moments occur in almost everyone’s experience when life reaches a temporary pause of homeostasis, when we feel quite safe on every side, when bad health does not threaten, when bill collectors are not baying at the door, when rush-hour traffic is light and the weather pleasant. But precisely at such moments “boredom on its own account emerges from the depths of our hearts, where it is naturally rooted, and poisons our whole mind.” Not just the king craves diversion. So terrified are we of boredom that the king’s ambition is our own.

I have called Pascal “the first modern Christian” because, among other reasons, our civilization, in contrast to all other past civilizations, gets its very identity from the sheer range of distractions that have now been made available to us, from hundreds of channels on cable TV to over a thousand video cassettes on the shelf of any self-respecting video rental agency to the millions of websites on the Internet, group activities of every sort imaginable, aerobics classes, talk-show radio on the air twenty-four hours a day, and so on. As the literary journalist Norman Cousins observed in his book Human Options:

Our own age is not likely to be distinguished in history for the large numbers of people who insisted on finding the time to think. Plainly, this is not the Age of Meditative Man. . . . Substitutes for repose are a billion dollar business. Almost daily, new antidotes for contemplation spring into being and leap out from store counters. Silence, already the world’s most critical shortage, is in danger of becoming a nasty word. Modern man may or may not be obsolete, but he is certainly wired for sound and he twitches as naturally as he breathes.

Of course no one denies the legitimate need for entertainment or the role that diversion plays in generating demand for the works of art that have become the glory of our species. Often life achieves its goal of testifying to its own goodness as worth living when a human being is able to enjoy the highest benefits of culture. I personally count myself most glad to be alive when I am enjoying a good meal with a friend, listening to Mozart in the privacy of my room, or reading a good book. Nor, despite his seeming Jansenist severity, would Pascal contemn such pleasures. Even he, the least therapeutic writer imaginable, admits that diversions can help to heal the beset soul (“that is why the man who lost his only son a few months ago and who was so troubled and oppressed this morning by lawsuits and quarrels is for the moment [because of a fleeting diversion] not thinking about it”).

But our extraordinary obsession with entertainment and distraction constitutes perhaps the hallmark of our civilization in contrast to past cultures. From the time the clock radio goes off in the morning to the late-night talk shows, the average denizen of contemporary culture need never be alone, encounter silence, or have to listen to the voice within. As Pascal says: “We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to keep from seeing the precipice.” Or as the French poet Paul Claudel says, speaking of the New Testament’s Book of Revelation: “What if, beneath all this revelry and group cheer, there were something seething under our feet?”

To the journalistic mind, all this gloom-and-doom apologetic is going to sound like the grim Calvinist sermons in The Scarlet Letter that poured forth from the tormented pulpit of the aptly named Rev. Mr. Arthur Dimmesdale. Schooled by the plot of this Urmyth of American Protestantism, the same journalistic mind will inevitably ask: What could be more life-denying than this constant dwelling on the dire straits of the human condition? And since Pascal owes so much to Calvinist doctrines of grace, is he not really the Catholic equivalent of the Rev. Mr. Dimmesdale?

No. Rather, the self-satisfied glee of the professional scoffer-the kind of opinion-monger who takes satisfaction in the fall of Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Bakker, or any other easy target-comes from a different motivation than a resentment against a supposedly life-denying Calvinist or Jansenist Christianity. Underneath the smug cluck-clucking at the fall of a Christian aiming for sanctity, Pascal will detect the “ABC rule” working its effect:

Order. Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next, make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is. Worthy of reverence because it really understands human nature. Attractive because it promises true good.

Of course, nothing could be further from Pascal’s intention than to sweep all religions under the universal rubric of human religiosity and see them merely as aspects of one global “search for meaning.” Enlightenment thinkers, who hoped to find a basis for international comity beyond the particularity of culture and religion, saw the modern pluriformity of religions as a problem. So too have postmodern thinkers, with their opposite privileging of the particular culture over against an allegedly “hegemonic” universal culture. Pascal, however, takes the multiplicity of religions to be a way of proving the truth of Christianity. Its very particularity, for Pascal, dramatically indicates its transcendental truth: “On the fact that the Christian religion is not unique: Far from being a reason for believing it not to be the true religion, it is on the contrary what proves it to be so.”

Perhaps no sentence that came from Pascal’s pen better encapsulates what makes him so modern as this apparent paradox. Nothing so beset, even fixated, the Enlightened mind of Pascal’s time and in the century to follow than what has become known as the “scandal of particularity.” If God’s will to save is universal, how can it matter what one believes in particular? What difference does it make what religion one belongs to or believes in, since-as one is constantly hearing on the lips of nearly every American-”it’s all the same God anyway”?

Second only to Dante, Pascal is Europe’s most politically incorrect writer. He dares to raise the unmentionable topic of truth in religion, and even called one of the sections of his Pensées “Nature Is Corrupt: On the Falseness of Other Religions.” In contrast to most reflection on the problem of world religions in today’s academy, Pascal sees the “problem” as in fact essential for the truth of the Christian message:

That God wanted to be hidden. If there were only one religion, God would be clearly manifest. If there were martyrs only in our religion, the same. God being therefore hidden, any religion which does not say that God is hidden is not true. And any religion which does not give us the reason why does not enlighten. Ours does all this. . . . If there were no obscurity man would not feel his corruption: if there were no light man could not hope for a cure. Thus it is not only right but useful that God should be partly concealed and partly revealed, since it is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing his wretchedness as to know his own wretchedness without knowing God. “Truly God is hidden with you” (Isaiah 45:15).

But of course the key to finding this light is to search for it, and this once more brings us to the central difficulty: do we want the light of the truth? “Truth is so obscured nowadays and lies so well established that unless we love the truth we shall never recognize it.”

So there are good reasons for Christianity to stress not only its uniqueness (every religion is unique in some way) but its inherent truth. Nothing is more awkward in our ecumenical age than for a religion to stress its possession of the truth. But Pascal would say to Christians that unless it is confident that it possesses the truth, Christianity will not have the confidence that it can apply the only salve that can heal the real wounds of humanity. As the former Marxist Leszek Kolakowski put it in his defense of Pascal:

There are reasons why we need Christianity, but not just any kind of Christianity. We do not need a Christianity that makes political revolution, that rushes to cooperate with so-called sexual liberation, that approves our concupiscence or praises our violence. There are enough forces in the world to do all these things without the aid of Christianity. We need a Christianity that will help us to move beyond the immediate pressures of life, that gives us insight into the basic limits of the human condition and the capacity to accept them, a Christianity that teaches us the simple truth that there is not only a tomorrow but a day after tomorrow as well, and that the difference between success and failure is rarely distinguishable.

But even this formulation puts the matter too weakly (one detects in Kolakowski’s praise of Pascal the same weakness that has made him so diffident toward doctrinal Christianity throughout his published career). Far better perhaps is the judgment of T. S. Eliot, who to my mind has summed up Pascal’s achievement best of all; and, as befits Pascal himself, he has done so in one sentence of unsurpassed accuracy and concision: “I can think of no Christian writer, not Newman even, more to be commended than Pascal to those who doubt, but who have the mind to conceive, and the sensibility to feel, the disorder, the futility, the meaninglessness, the mystery of life and suffering, and who can only find peace through a satisfaction of the whole being.”

Pascal’s was a remarkable achievement, made even more remarkable by one-often overlooked-detail: he died at the age of thirty-nine.

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Pascal: The First Modern Christian Part 2 by Edward T. Oakes

June 3, 2014
One of Pascal’s most famous observations, found in nearly every anthology of quotations, holds that "all the misfortunes of men derive from one single thing, their inability to remain at repose in a room." Far from being merely the obiter dictum of a dry cynic, Pascal’s remark actually forms the opening gambit of his Christian apologetics, for he knows that "being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance," and being not too fond of the medicine of Christ on offer either, "men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things."

One of Pascal’s most famous observations, found in nearly every anthology of quotations, holds that “all the misfortunes of men derive from one single thing, their inability to remain at repose in a room.” Far from being merely the obiter dictum of a dry cynic, Pascal’s remark actually forms the opening gambit of his Christian apologetics, for he knows that “being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance,” and being not too fond of the medicine of Christ on offer either, “men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.”

Originally over in the PAGES section which I am now rewriting while redoing my old PAGES as posts. Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches in the Religious Studies Department at Regis University in Denver, Colorado. This is a remarkable article on Pascal that was carried by First Things a few years back.

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In fact few thinkers, when read carefully, would seem less Cartesian than Pascal, even in his philosophy of science, which at first glance seems so Cartesian, with its praise of the “geometrical” mind. Actually, for all his brilliance as a mathematician and despite his awe before the geometrical method, Pascal gives a much more ringing defense of the empirical method than any of the British empiricists managed to do, and he certainly grants to the senses a much larger role than any of his fellow Continental Rationalists could muster. 

Today we can see that the British Empiricists went too far and misinterpreted rationality as a mere generalization of sensation, while the Continental Rationalists went to the other extreme because they could not grant the exalted title “knowledge” to any but rational truths.

But Pascal, anticipating the errors of both schools and sounding almost like a disciple of W. V. Quine avant la lettre, was able to balance rational and empirical, a priori and a posteriori reasoning with a remarkably contemporary note:

“When we say that the diamond is the hardest of all bodies,” he observes in his fragmentary Treatise on the Vacuum, “we mean of all bodies with which we are acquainted. We cannot and ought not to include those bodies of which we are entirely ignorant. . . . For in all matters in which proof consists in experiences and not in demonstrations, one cannot make any universal assertion save by general enumeration of all the parts and of all the different cases.”

This principle might seem obvious today, but its application had an unsettling effect on the mind of contemporary natural philosophers trained in medieval scholastic physics. In 1648 Pascal’s brother-in-law carried a barometer up a mountain and observed how the level of mercury changed with the height of the mountain.

Pascal then repeated the experiment by checking the mercury levels at various heights inside a Parisian church tower, the results of which prompted him to exclaim: “Nature has no abhorrence of a vacuum, she makes no effort to avoid it. . . . Due to their lack of knowledge of this phenomenon, people have invented a wholly imaginary horror of a vacuum.” As noted philosopher of science Richard H. Popkin rightly observes: “Combining his ingeniously derived experimental data with a clear analysis of the possible explanatory hypotheses, Pascal arrived at one of the major achievements of seventeenth-century science.”

But Pascal is even more noticeably anti-Cartesian in his concern for the Christian religion. Descartes famously loathed theological disputes and avoided their entanglements whenever possible. Pascal, as his acrimonious debates with the Jesuits attest, entered the fray of theological infighting with startling gusto and vehemence. But what most of his contemporaries, both friend and foe, failed during his lifetime to see about his motivation emerged only after his death, when his younger sister gathered together the shards and disjecta membra of his notes for a projected work of apologetics and published them in the form we know today as the Pensées.

From this remarkable work we now realize that Pascal saw himself, above all, as Christ’s apologete and defender against Christianity’s rationalist scoffers (whereas Descartes in contrast knew himself primarily, indeed only, as a scientist and philosopher). No doubt Pascal always remained heavily indebted to Descartes’ dualism of mind and matter, but in his apologetics for Christianity he transforms Cartesian dualism into merely one aspect of a much deeper and more central dualism: not between spirit and matter but between God’s holiness and human misery, not between soul and body but between God’s infinity and man’s sin. Christ came to heal these more agonizing divisions-divisions rooted not in incompatible metaphysical essences but in the pathos of the enfleshed soul trapped in sin. The Incarnation thus becomes a balm applied to man’s riven soul, torn not so much between spirit and flesh as between despair and pride.

[The Christian religion] teaches men both these truths: that there is a God of whom we are capable, and that a corruption in our nature makes us unworthy of Him. It is equally important for us to know both these points; for it is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing his own wretchedness, and to know his wretchedness without knowing the Redeemer who can cure him of it. Knowledge of only one of these points leads either to the arrogance of the philosophers, who have known God and not their own wretchedness, or to the despair of the atheists, who know their wretchedness without knowing the Redeemer.

We can see from these remarks that for Pascal Descartes’ dualism is missing a crucial element: he has failed to provide an analysis of the moral dangers to which the human spirit is prone precisely because of its capacity for an infinite reach to the very ends of the universe. Pascal openly affirms with Descartes that our capacity to know the universe makes us masters, in some paradoxical sense, of the universe we conceive. But our capacity to “grasp” the universe and transform it into a mental construct of our knowing powers remains both paradox and pathos: we always accomplish these acts of knowing as puny, pathetic, and vulnerable bodies, whose corruption eventually leads to death.

This knowing mind, however, would rather remain enamored of its cognitive powers than acknowledge that this knowing power is an organic function of the brain. (Philosopher John Searle calls the brain “cognitive meat,” which nicely captures in the minor key of neuroscience Pascal’s more metaphysical definition in the major key of man as a “thinking reed.”) Fearing the inevitable dissolution of its powers, the mind hides from itself the reality of its own insignificance. Second only to cognition itself, the most notable fact of the human mind lies in its tendency to forget the realities of its corruption and death.

Hence the central temptation of man is always pride. (Thus did the Serpent tempt Adam and Eve.) For Pascal, pride is a deeply functional sin: it works to help us forget. The mind shrinks from recognizing its status as a thinking reed by hiding under a carapace of pride. Characteristically, Descartes failed to notice this pathos; a missing element that, like the non-barking dog that became the decisive clue in the Sherlock Holmes story, tells us why Cartesian philosophy is more culprit than detective, more likely, that is, to lead us astray than to bring us to the truth.

But despite a few stray remarks in the Pensées that attack Descartes, Pascal’s intent there is not, fundamentally, polemical. Throughout this fascinating book of almost random observations the reader soon picks up the author’s driving motivation. Pascal above all wants to explain to his post-Cartesian contemporaries how the pathos of human nature has its own “balm in Gilead,” a healing ointment in Jesus Christ, who is the very divine incarnation of these human oppositions. 

But of course Jesus Christ can only be accepted as Christ (the “anointed one”) if one first admits that human nature needs His healing balm. Christ’s coming on earth thus has the odd effect of eliciting hate precisely because His presence in history will reopen wounds that our distracted culture thought had been healed not by His balm but by the iodine of hyperactivity.

No wonder, then, that modernity since the Enlightenment has taken scandal in Jesus Christ. Even inside our own culture, which is often called “post”-modern because of its self-image of being more accommodating to local traditions and intercultural understanding than was Enlightened modernity, Christianity still is made to feel something like the bastard son who shows up uninvited at the annual family picnic. 

Inside all the talk about multiculturalism, contemporary culture often balks at including Christianity in its “gorgeous mosaic.” This uneasiness has sometimes been dubbed the “ABC Rule,” meaning “anything but Christianity.” Undoubtedly Pascal would amend that to mean “anyone but Christ,” for at root that is where the scandal lies. Christianity’s scandal is not just itself (though it is that as well, which is no doubt why the Pope wants the Church formally to repent of her institutional sins); its real scandal is Jesus Christ. And He is the stumbling block precisely because to accept Him is first of all to admit one’s hopelessness without Him. Pride and life in Christ are inherently incompatible.

Pride tells us we can know God without Jesus Christ, in effect that we can communicate with God without a mediator. But this only means that we are communicating with a God who is the [prideful] result that comes from being known without a mediator. Whereas those who have known God through a mediator know their own wretchedness.

Not only is it impossible to know God without Jesus Christ, it is also useless. . . . [For] knowing God without knowing our wretchedness leads to pride. Knowing our wretchedness without knowing God leads to despair. Knowing Jesus Christ is the middle course, because in Him we find both God and our wretchedness.

Because he wants the Incarnation to be a cure appropriate to the disease and because the death of Christ on the cross is indeed a most radical cure, implying a serious illness, Pascal is usually categorized as a “pessimistic” thinker — he wants his readers to see how far advanced the disease infecting them really is. And certainly he can be unsparing in his portrayal of the fleshly corruption and frail constitution of that “bruised and crushed reed” that is the human body.

No doubt he could describe the corruption of the flesh so well partly because his own health was so appallingly bad, perhaps the worst of any Christian mystic with the exception of Teresa of Ávila and Adrienne von Speyr. (In fact, at his autopsy it was discovered that the fontanel — the “soft spot” on an infant’s skull-had never been closed over in Pascal’s case by the formation of skull bone, so that Pascal lived his entire life with an unclosed cranium, which certainly provides a weird intensity to his definition of man as a “thinking reed.”)

But in depicting human wretchedness Pascal never wallows in scenes of grim despair but simply faces the human condition as it is, universally. In fact for Pascal, as for Dostoevsky later, the real issue comes down not to the sheer immensity of human suffering but more crucially to the fact that human suffering only has to occur once for the issue of man’s predicament to be raised.

But Dostoevsky (or at least his fictional character Ivan Karamazov) takes the fact of just one child suffering and on that basis assumes the role of being humanity’s “prosecuting attorney,” as it were, charging God to justify Himself as God in the face of that one moment of evil. Pascal lived well before this style of what is often called “protest atheism,” but if he were transported to Ivan Karamazov’s celestial courtroom as “attorney for the defense,” as it were, he would surely turn the argument around and put the challenge to the whole courtroom: anyone who would presume to act as spectator to this suffering (as judge and jury must do in order to fulfill their roles) has a challenge to face too.

What Pascal would say, in other words, is that as long as we take the spectator’s part and view human suffering from the outside, then, no matter how happy our circumstances are at the moment, we must know ourselves fundamentally as wretched beings. “Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death,” he would say to the courtroom as he did in the Pensées, “some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition.”

Especially in this era of terrorists parading their hostages in front of the world’s television screens, or hijackers holding a pistol to the head of an airline pilot for all the world to behold, or high school students hiding under cafeteria tables while their friends are being murdered by their own peers, we immediately recognize the truth of what Pascal is saying.

But Pascal does not intend to force his readers to wallow in this misery. Rather, his depiction of the human condition is meant only to create the first opening through which we hear God’s response to that misery. Such a response, like the answer of the Almighty to Job, will be no courtroom defense speech. Jansenist that he was, Pascal firmly believed that “God owes us nothing,” and so Dostoevsky’s formulation would have been inconceivable to him.

And yet, however inadequate it might be in the eyes of the “protest atheist” (who, as a spectator of suffering, must perforce judge God from the outside), God’s answer is not nothing. But that answer cannot even be heard if we do not admit the realities of the human condition in all their bleakness. Even as spectators, we suffer what we are forced to see. Television screens force us to become spectators of appalling suffering, but the situation they reveal is rooted in everyone’s nature. There is no escape from its pathos, only balm for our wounds — if we are willing to accept the astringency of the ointment.

Of course, not many want that kind of painful healing, making it well-nigh inevitable that we will avail ourselves of distractions from our woes. Few words, in fact, are more crucial to Pascal than divertissement, usually translated as “diversion” or “distraction.”

One of Pascal’s most famous observations, found in nearly every anthology of quotations, holds that “all the misfortunes of men derive from one single thing, their inability to remain at repose in a room.” Far from being merely the obiter dictum of a dry cynic, Pascal’s remark actually forms the opening gambit of his Christian apologetics, for he knows that “being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance,” and being not too fond of the medicine of Christ on offer either, “men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.”

“Pessimist” that he is, however, Pascal refuses to let us evade God’s answer to our plight just because we would rather not advert to our distress in the first place. “That is why men are so fond of hustle and bustle,” he says. “That is why prison is such a fearful punishment; that is why the pleasures of solitude are so incomprehensible.”

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Pascal: The First Modern Christian Part 1 by Edward T. Oakes

June 2, 2014
"Man’s true nature, his true good and true virtue, and true religion cannot be known separately." In other words, to admit the essential animality of human nature, right through to the soul, becomes for Pascal the beginning of rational wisdom.

“Man’s true nature, his true good and true virtue, and true religion cannot be known separately.” In other words, to admit the essential animality of human nature, right through to the soul, becomes for Pascal the beginning of rational wisdom.

Originally over in the PAGES section which I am now rewriting while redoing my old PAGES as posts. Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches in the Religious Studies Department at Regis University in Denver, Colorado. This is a remarkable article on Pascal that was carried by First Things a few years back.

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As a way of dividing up history into discrete, manageable wholes, the habit of clustering events according to centuries is probably no more (or less) superficial than any other. And surely it must be safer and more reliable than bandying about such descriptive monikers as “the Age of Faith,” “the Enlightenment,” “the Atomic Age,” and so on, for at least the century-unit is known to be arbitrary, stemming as it does from the decimal system of numbering, which itself probably arose from the happenstance of ten fingers on the pair of human hands.

Unfortunately, the broad-stroke descriptive label, like some post-it note that sticks to everything it touches, will often enough get applied to the century marker in any case-despite the objections of more fastidious historians, who rightly fear that this habit of nomenclature may seduce the unwary.

For such catch-all tags as “Age of Anxiety,” “Age of Chivalry,” etc. can be wildly inaccurate, or at least too sweeping. And no name for a century has been more misleading than that often used for the seventeenth: the Age of Reason. Not only did this century see the worst of the witch-hunting craze, but it also had to endure the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), at root a European civil war of religion — and, like all wars of religion, a clash of unbridled irrationality.

Yet just as centuries take on a certain inevitable identity from the very habit of invoking them so often (hence this Millennium Series), so too do these centuries soon come to assume the very descriptive characteristics by which they have so frequently been identified. Not for nothing has the seventeenth century, despite its infamous displays of irrationality, been known as the Age of Reason. Any century that began with René Descartes (1596-1650) as a five-year-old boy and concluded with Voltaire (1694-1778) as a seven-year-old, and during which Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) lived most of their lives and Baruch Spinoza all of his (1632-1677), is bound to strike later centuries as an eminently rational era.

However repellent and violent the wars of religion were or however vehement the waning years of the witch-burning craze undoubtedly must have been, we cannot help but see the seventeenth century in terms of what our civilization has embraced and what, on the basis of that embrace, it has abjured. Wars of religion and witch-burning appall. Reason is hailed as the splendor of our species (yes, even today, despite what the Nietzscheans and Heideggerians might claim). Thus the Age of Reason is celebrated for what we most value in it, and in ourselves. We condemn its horrors, but only on the basis of its glories.

Indeed, very few textbooks in the history of philosophy would deny to Descartes, that quintessential man of the seventeenth century, the title of Founding Father of modern philosophy — and precisely because of his systematic and methodical elevation of reason. His method for rational inquiry, based on consistently held doubt toward all doctrinaire assumptions of the human mind, is usually seen as modernity’s decisive break-out from the fettering chains of the medieval synthesis, which itself was formed from a prior fusion of reason and faith painstakingly soldered together over several centuries in the late Middle Ages.

Because of Descartes, reason now regards itself as a fully adult faculty, free at last of the tutelage of dogma and tradition. It is to Descartes, above all, that we owe the idea of rationality as an all-purpose acid through which every tenaciously held belief of the human mind must pass.

In that setting Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) emerges as the man who became, as I shall argue in the rest of this essay, “the first modern Christian.” I would even include in that judgment the deep reticence and privacy of his spiritual life, for Pascal rarely revealed the movements of his soul to any but his most trusted spiritual directors. 

Modernity often regards religion as a private affair of the heart and looks askance at too public displays of religious emotion; and there too Pascal strikes a remarkably modern note. Except for a few passing references in his letters, he rarely mentioned even the most important biographical milestones that determined his career.

In fact, it is only because he sewed a parchment memorial of the event inside his coat pocket that history knows of the most important incident in his life-his “Night of Fire” on November 23, 1654, when for about two hours he was overwhelmed by tears of joy at the realization that the God of the philosophers was not the God of the Bible. No doubt he had always recognized what history has since come to acknowledge: that his legacy to us is due more to his thought than to his life.

He was born in the city of Clermont-Ferrard, in the south-central region of Auvergne, in 1623. His father was a government official, mostly in the royal court system, who at death (in 1651) left a comfortable sum to his one son and two daughters. In 1631 the father moved to Paris and later took up a post as tax assessor in Rouen, a tedious job that required long hours of dreary number-crunching. Seeing these grinding labors of his father, son Blaise struck upon the idea of building him a computer, the first ever invented and which is still on display in Paris at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers.

This remarkable achievement had already been foreshadowed by an event recounted by his older sister Gilberte. Blaise’s father had assumed the entire responsibility for his son’s education and had forbidden the boy to study or read geometry until he had first mastered Latin and Greek. But one day the father happened to come upon his precocious twelve-year-old, with charcoal and scrap paper on the floor, working out, totally untutored, Euclid’s geometry up to the thirty-second proposition. 

Whether strictly true or merely bien trouvé (a reconciliation), the story points to Pascal’s universally acknowledged mathematical genius. In 1639, for example, at the age of sixteen, he wrote an essay on conic sections; and toward the end of his life he laid the foundations of the infinitesimal calculus, integral calculus, and the calculus of probabilities in a work that inspired Newton and Leibniz, more or less simultaneously and more or less independently of each other, to bring the development of calculus to where it is today. (Newton and Leibniz later got into a nasty dispute about who first discovered calculus, time that would have been better spent acknowledging their mutual debt to Pascal.)

The accidents of Pascal’s biography also illuminate, at least partly, his famous attack on those sworn enemies of Jansenist theology, the Jesuit moralists, who were not loath to point out how Jansenism bore certain affinities with French Huguenot Calvinism. Now the great center of Jansenist theology and spirituality at that time was the convent of Port-Royal, where Pascal’s younger sister Jacqueline had entered and which the Jesuits eventually prevailed upon an aging King Louis XIV to close once Popes Innocent X, Alexander VII, and Clement XI had successively declared Jansenism a heresy.

Although the convent only closed after Pascal’s death, persecution of anyone associated with Port-Royal had already begun in his lifetime. Needless to say, the primary victims of this highhanded example of ecclesiastical Machtpolitik were not the Jansenist theologians (all male) but a convent of pious women who cared little for the subtleties of tractates on grace but who knew their Jansenist spiritual directors to be holy men. Such considerations meant nothing to an absolutist king and his Jesuit confessors, however, and royal persecution of the convent remained relentless, a campaign that made Pascal an enemy of the Jesuits for the rest of his life.

An essay treating Pascal’s wider millennial significance cannot discuss in any detail the nature of his rather arcane dispute with the moral theologians of the Society of Jesus. But of his Provincial Letters, the collection of polemical tracts that had been provoked by the dispute, the last word should perhaps be given to the balanced judgment of T. S. Eliot: “He undoubtedly abused the art of quotation, as a polemical writer can hardly help but do; but there were abuses for him to abuse.” 

Eliot is not excusing Pascal’s ferocity here, even in the act of admitting that his targets deserved criticism. Quite the contrary, Eliot gets exactly the right balance when he says that “as polemic [these letters] are surpassed by none, not by Demosthenes, or Cicero, or Swift. [But] they have the limitation of all polemic and forensic: they persuade, they seduce, they are unfair.”

Of course if this were all there was to Pascal, he would be merely the curiosity of the specialist, the fit subject of research for the historian of mathematics or the scholar of Counter-Reformation theology in France. But Pascal is more, much more. What makes him so utterly remarkable, indeed so remarkably modern, is the fact that he became the first Christian apologist both to absorb the Cartesian apotheosis of reason and to fight against its acidic effects, often using Descartes’ own principles.

In fact, so thoroughly did Pascal absorb the Cartesian outlook that from time to time one will find a philosophy textbook that classifies Pascal as the first and most influential member of the Cartesian school-a categorization which would certainly have come as a surprise to Pascal himself, most of whose references to Descartes in the jottings that make up the Pensées are derogatory. (Two examples: “Descartes useless and uncertain.” “Write against those who probe science too deeply. Descartes.”)

But perhaps there is a certain justice in this unhelpful pigeonholing of Pascal as a Cartesian, especially when one considers his essay “The Spirit of Geometry and the Art of Persuasion.” Here more than elsewhere he strikes the Cartesian note, as when he suggests that “logic has perhaps borrowed the rules of geometry without understanding their force.” As with Descartes, and Spinoza after him, the ideal rational method for Pascal is what he calls the “geometrical” method, using mathematical rules of inference from accepted or self-evident axioms. 

Pascal means to set his purely mathematical form of inference over against the logical method of Aristotle, especially as it had been developed and extended by the medieval schoolmen. In this he is clearly presuming, as did Descartes, that medieval logic and “geometry” (in his sense) somehow conflict, to the detriment of all prior logic.

The two Frenchmen also share a noticeable dualism about the constitution of the human person, and here perhaps most of all we discover how much Descartes and Pascal have in common. Both men see human beings as a riddling composition of juxtaposed, antithetical essences (body and mind, flesh and spirit, extension and thinking), a dualism which in Pascal comes through most particularly in his famous definition of man as a “thinking reed.” 

Both Descartes and Pascal, as true early moderns standing on the threshold of imminent discoveries of the universe’s immensity from ever-improving telescopes, suspect the vast extension of space; but as true dualists (dualists who, moreover, give precedence to the mind) they also know that mind or consciousness can somehow possess and encompass that space in the very act of knowing it.

Pascal differs from Descartes’ rather bloodless rationalism, however, in the explicitly theological implications he will try to draw from this anthropological dualism. He is alert, as Descartes rarely is, to the religious and ethical implications of this dualism of mind and body:

Thinking reed. It is not in space that I must look for my dignity, but in the organization of my thoughts. I shall have no advantage in owning estates. Through space the universe grasps and engulfs me like a pinpoint; but through thought I can grasp it. . . . All our dignity consists, therefore, of thought. It is from there that we must be lifted up and not from space and time, which we could never fill. So let us work on thinking well. That is the principle of morality.

No doubt this passage will strike most readers as a remarkable summary of Cartesian metaphysics, especially in its reliance on the famous distinction between the nonspatial “thinking thing” (mind) and the space-occupying “extended thing” (body). But even here we can pick up the characteristic tone of the Pascalian stress on morality: far from trying à la Descartes to take this initial dualism as the basis on which to build a rickety philosophical superstructure, Pascal wants to see in the baffling juxtaposition of these two irreconcilable substances the very pathos of human existence itself. “Man’s nature is entirely natural, wholly animal,” he concedes. “There is nothing that cannot be made natural.” But that is also why, he says, “there is nothing that cannot be lost.”

Nothing, then, is exempt from the death sentence of nature, not even knowledge, not even spirit-which is why, as Pascal says, “man’s true nature, his true good and true virtue, and true religion cannot be known separately.” In other words, to admit the essential animality of human nature, right through to the soul, becomes for Pascal the beginning of rational wisdom. 

Indeed, morality begins with this admission: not in a flight from nature but in a recognition of its misery and corruption. (Note that Pascal’s first conclusion from his mind/body dualism is not epistemological, but moral: there is no point in owning vast “spatial” estates, he says above, precisely because the soul is nonspatial.)

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Chesterton and the Thereness of It 3 — Fr. Richard Neuhaus

May 23, 2014

 

He reveled in the messiness of Catholicism. A significant difference between the and Catholic ways of being Christian, he suggested, is indicated by the fact that “the Protestant generally says, ‘I am a good Protestant,’ while the Catholic always says, ‘I am a bad Catholic.’“

He reveled in the messiness of Catholicism. A significant difference between the and Catholic ways of being Christian, he suggested, is indicated by the fact that “the Protestant generally says, ‘I am a good Protestant,’ while the Catholic always says, ‘I am a bad Catholic.’“

No League of Tribes
Another and more serious obstacle to the appreciation of Chesterton is his alleged anti-Semitism. Joseph Pearce’s forthright treatment of that charge should put it to rest once and for all. Chesterton shared conventional English prejudices about Jewish influence, prejudices which today would be called anti-Semitic. This was exacerbated early on in life when a Jewish financier brought a lawsuit that entangled his family and friends in considerable unpleasantness. But, as a prominent rabbi wrote upon Chesterton’s death, “When Hitlerism came, he was one of the first to speak out with all the directness and frankness of a great and unabashed spirit. Blessing to his memory!”

Long before anyone could know the unspeakable horror to which it would lead, GKC was appalled by the barbarism of the Nazis, and particularly by their anti-Semitism. In 1933 he wrote that a measure of nationalism, understood as patriotism, can be a good thing. “But the racial spirit is a restless spirit; it does not go by frontiers but by the wandering of the blood. . . .

You can have a League of Nations; but you could hardly have a League of Tribes. When the Tribe is on the march, it is apt to forget leagues — not to mention frontiers.” He was among the first to perceive the connections between racial theory, eugenics, anti-Semitism, and the tribal impulse toward Lebensraum. He did not live to see his perception confirmed by World War II and the Holocaust.

Today it is often forgotten how very respectable were eugenics and related racial theories at the beginning of the century. In 1913, Chesterton vigorously attacked the Mental Deficiency Act, which had the strong support of the Church of England. The public committee advocating its passage was headed by the archbishops of Canterbury and York. Bishop Barnes of Birmingham was a spokesman on behalf of the Christian case for eugenics, and he proposed: “Christianity seeks to create the Kingdom of God, the community of the elect. It tries to make what we may call a spiritually eugenic society. . . . When religious people realize that, in preventing the survival of the socially unfit, they are working in accordance with the plan by which God has brought humanity so far on its road, their objections to repressive action will vanish.” Chesterton recoiled with all his being from the notion of a eugenic society, spiritual or otherwise.

On these questions, too, his Catholic spirit was brought to bear. He reveled in the messiness of Catholicism. A significant difference between the Protestant and Catholic ways of being Christian, he suggested, is indicated by the fact that “the Protestant generally says, ‘I am a good Protestant,’ while the Catholic always says, ‘I am a bad Catholic.’“ Near the end of his life, he responded to a letter writer who brought a long list of charges against the Catholic Church, including its tolerance of a vast horde of criminals, prostitutes, and other disreputable types who hang on to its fringes.

True enough, says Chesterton, and an interesting fact it is. “They cannot get the Church’s Sacraments or solid assurances, except by changing their whole way of life; but they do actually love the Faith that they cannot live by. . . . If you explain it by supposing that the Church, though bound to refuse them Absolution where there is not amendment, keeps in touch with them and treats their human dignity rather more sympathetically than does the world, Puritan or Pagan . . . that also probably refers to a real fact. It is one of the facts that convince me most strongly that Catholicism is what it claims to be. After two thousand years of compromises and concordats, with every sort of social system, the Catholic Church has never yet become quite respectable. He still eats and drinks with publicans and sinners.

David Fagerberg and I were both Lutherans who later entered into full communion with the Catholic Church. Unlike Fagerberg, I was not conscious of Chesterton being a major influence in that decision, but perhaps he was by my side on the journey more than I realized. Certainly I look forward to good conversation with him in that inn at the end of the road, over a steak, a pint of ale, and a fine cigar. But, for the purposes of this preliminary reflection, let me leave it to Mr. Fagerberg: “Chesterton said saints are medicines because they are antidotes, claiming the saint restores the world to sanity by exaggerating what the world neglects. 

Chesterton was this author’s antidote: the one who exaggerated things which had been neglected. . . He can feel like a walking overstatement to someone who does not need the elixir, but to someone who does, he is an exact dosage. I have not written this for the purpose that it necessarily have the same effect on anyone else, only to repay my own debt by honoring a friend.” Chesterton is a very good friend to have in the communion of sinners made saints.

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Chesterton and the Thereness of It 2 — Fr. Richard Neuhaus 

May 22, 2014
Chesterton invented a rudimentary and makeshift mystical theory of his own. It was substantially this: that even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting. Anything was magnificent as compared with nothing. Even if the very daylight were a dream, it was a day-dream; it was not a nightmare.

Chesterton invented a rudimentary and makeshift mystical theory of his own. It was substantially this: that even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting. Anything was magnificent as compared with nothing. Even if the very daylight were a dream, it was a day-dream; it was not a nightmare.

The Chief Idea
Even as a boy, Chesterton says, he had this intuition that any theory or attitude that deadened the experienced wildness of things must, to that extent, be false. “I had a strong inward impulse to revolt. . . . But as I was still thinking the thing out by myself, with little help from philosophy and no real help from religion, I invented a rudimentary and makeshift mystical theory of my own. It was substantially this: that even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting. Anything was magnificent as compared with nothing. Even if the very daylight were a dream, it was a day-dream; it was not a nightmare.”

That was Chesterton the schoolboy. As an old man, shortly before he died in 1936, he wrote about what “I hope is not pompous to call the chief idea of my life. I will not say the doctrine I have always taught, but the doctrine I should always have liked to teach. That is the idea of taking things with gratitude, and not taking things for granted.”

Perhaps it is more a sensibility than a doctrine, but anyone who has read much Chesterton knows he taught it, and continues to teach it, with powerful effect. A life lived well is a life lived in response to grace, and from gratitude flows the wildness of wonder enough for an eternity.

He was impatient with the prissy, the proper, the excessively neat. Which no doubt explains in part his affinity for Hilaire Belloc. Pearce tells the delightful story of novelist Henry James paying a visit to GKC, which is interrupted by the arrival of Hilaire Belloc, just back from tramping through Europe and in a typically raucous mood: “Henry James had a name for being subtle; but I think that situation was too subtle for him. I doubt to this day whether he, of all men, did not miss the irony of the best comedy in which he ever played a part. He left America because he loved Europe, and all that was meant by England or France; the gentry, the gallantry, the tradition of lineage and locality, the life that had been lived beneath old portraits in oak-paneled rooms. And there, on the other side of the tea-table, was Europe, was the old thing that made France and England, the posterity of the English squires and the French soldiers; ragged, unshaven, shouting for beer, shameless above all shades of poverty and wealth; sprawling, indifferent, secure. And what looked across at it was still the Puritan refinement of Boston; and the space it looked across was wider than the Atlantic.”

Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw were regular and friendly sparring partners in diverse forums, and one encounter produced this from Chesterton: “Shaw’s misunderstanding of Shakespeare arose largely from the fact that he is a Puritan, while Shakespeare was spiritually a Catholic. The former is always screwing himself up to see the truth; the latter is often content that truth is there.” Chesterton was much impressed by the thereness of things, and it had everything to do with his becoming a Catholic.

Before his conversion, he wrote to an Anglican friend: “As you may possibly guess, I want to consider my position about the biggest thing of all, whether I am to be inside it or outside it. I used to think one could be an Anglo-Catholic and really inside it; but if that was (to use an excellent phrase of your own) only a Porch, I do not think I want a Porch, and certainly not a Porch standing some way from the building. A Porch looks so silly, standing all by itself in a field.”

Later, he would write his mother to explain his conversion: “I have thought about you, and all that I owe to you and my father, not only in the way of affection, but of the ideals of honor and freedom and charity and all other good things you always taught me: and I am not conscious of the smallest break or difference in those ideals; but only of a new and necessary way of fighting for them. I think . . . that the fight for the family and the free citizen and everything decent must now be waged by the one fighting form of Christianity.”

Immediately after Chesterton’s reception into the Church, Belloc wrote him about his own reasons for being Catholic. The words of Belloc are, in tone and substance, surely Chestertonian: “And as to the doubt of the soul, I discover it to be false: a mood, not a conclusion. My conclusion-and that of all men who have ever once seen it — is the faith. Corporate, organized, a personality, teaching. A thing, not a theory. It.”

A Good Argument
Today such sentiments might grate against ecumenical sensibilities. As a faithful son of the Church, Chesterton, and I suppose Belloc, would have gone along with the development of doctrine at the Second Vatican Council which recognizes that, while the Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time, there are many beyond its boundaries who are, whether they know it or not, “truly but imperfectly in communion” with the Catholic Church.

At the same time, I expect he would be impatient with styles of ecumenism that are reduced to niceness and take the edge off “the one fighting form of Christianity.” Not that Chesterton was a quarrelsome person. On the contrary, all testify to his civility and affability in the many disputes he relished. The trouble with a quarrel, he said, is that it interrupts a good argument.

A good argument must be about truth, and ecumenism that is more about negotiating differences than about discovering the truth is not very interesting. I have no doubt that Chesterton would agree with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who writes that our disputing ancestors “were in reality much closer to each other when in all their disputes they still knew that they could only be servants of one truth which must be acknowledged as being as great and as pure as it has been intended for us by God.”

Also, the alternatives to Catholicism that Chesterton knew were the Church of England and the Methodist chapel, anodyne forms of the faith unsuited to his spirited mind and soul. Were he an American, he might have found his fighting form of the faith in, say, the Southern Baptist Convention or Missouri Synod Lutheranism. But there the fights are about such a small and selective part of all the truths in the world. So still today it would likely be the case that Chesterton could settle for nothing less than the capacious trysting place and company of combat that is the Catholic Church.

While he said that tradition is the democracy of the dead, he did not have any use for democratic governance in the Church. The Church is about truth, and truth is necessarily hierarchical. It is a very different matter in the civil realm. There Chesterton was a great democrat, but he didn’t think much of the way democracy worked in aristocracy-ridden England. The problem, he said, is that, while the people get to vote, they don’t get to pose the questions to be voted on. 

If things continue as they are, “There will be less democratic value in an English election than in a Roman saturnalia of slaves. For the powerful class will choose two courses of action, both of them safe for itself, and then give the democracy the gratification of taking one course or the other. The lord will take two things so much alike that he would not mind choosing them blindfold — and then for a great jest he will allow the slaves to choose.”

As the chief voice of the Distributist League, GKC advocated, with wavering energies throughout his life, an alternative to both capitalism and socialism. He understood himself to be in line with Catholic social teaching, specifically the teaching of Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum, and tried to be definite about the kind of capitalism that must be opposed.

“When I say ‘Capitalism,’ I commonly mean something that may be stated thus: ‘That economic condition in which there is a class of capitalists, roughly recognizable and relatively small, in whose possession so much of the capital is concentrated as to necessitate a very large majority of the citizens serving those capitalists for a wage.’“ He recognized that “capitalism” can mean many different things. “Lenin and Trotsky believe as much as Lloyd George and Thomas Aquinas that the economic operations of today must leave something over for the economic operations of tomorrow. And that is all that capital means in its economic sense. In that case, the word is useless. My use of it may be arbitrary, but it is not useless.”

The ideas of economic distributism were never thoroughly developed, and perhaps could not be. But he relentlessly insisted that there had to be a better way in which ordinary people could take charge of their life and property, or, in the language of contemporary Catholic social teaching, be “the artisans of their own destiny.” 

The impulse of distributism, one might suggest, is to work out more fully the economic implications of the doctrine of subsidiarity-or as the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus puts it, “the subjectivity of society.” Today’s admirers of Chesterton who are also proponents of democratic capitalism tend to forgive him his economic views. In fact, those views may not be so distant as many think from what is rightly affirmed in today’s capitalism, which is notably distant from what Chesterton meant by the term.

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Chesterton and the Thereness of It 1 — Fr. Richard Neuhaus 

May 21, 2014
Chesterton’s discovery was that Catholicism is large enough and various enough to accommodate all the paradoxical combinations by which the fullness of truth is revealed. The Church is, he said in a typically fetching formulation, “the trysting place of all the truths in the world.” A trysting place is where lovers meet, and Chesterton’s was a lifelong affair with the truth that has entered into liaison with all the truths in the world.

Chesterton’s discovery was that Catholicism is large enough and various enough to accommodate all the paradoxical combinations by which the fullness of truth is revealed. The Church is, he said in a typically fetching formulation, “the trysting place of all the truths in the world.” A trysting place is where lovers meet, and Chesterton’s was a lifelong affair with the truth that has entered into liaison with all the truths in the world.

Another page becoming post, as I am cleaning up my site. This is a great combination: Neuhaus & Chesterton. A fairly long piece so I have divided it into three posts.

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I try not to read too much Chesterton, or at least not too much at one sitting. He has a way of insinuating himself into a writer’s manner, leading either to pretension or despair. To try to write like him makes one look silly, and knowing that you can’t write like him is very depressing. These thoughts are brought to mind by Joseph Pearce’s great big new biography, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G. K. Chesterton (Ignatius). Mr. Pearce is clearly in love with his subject, so there is nothing here aimed at deflating Chesterton’s reputation, which will no doubt disappoint bien pensant readers for whom a worthy biography must expose the unworthiness of the life examined.

Biography as pathography is all the rage. The same critics might also complain that there is an inordinate amount of direct quotation of Chesterton, but I am inclined to the view that it is perfectly in order when it is Chesterton who is quoted — especially when much of the material is culled from private letters and other sources previously unpublished.

Pearce’s Chesterton is very much the Catholic Chesterton. And, as the title indicates, so is another recent biographical study by David W. Fagerberg, The Size of Chesterton’s Catholicism. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis are frequently compared as Christian apologists, and one meets people beyond numbering who were decisively influenced by these writers in their course of conversion.

In the case of Chesterton, however, the conversion is, more often than not it seems, not just to Christianity but to the Catholic Church. The phrase “just to Christianity,” of course, puts one in mind of Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Alan Jacobs of Wheaton College has suggested (“The Second Coming of C. S. Lewis,” FT, November 1994) that there was a certain guile in the “mereness” of Lewis’ Christianity.

Lewis combined the intellectual panache of Oxford and Cambridge with a one-size-fits-all Christianity that required no uncomfortably specific decisions about church, sacraments, and the sometimes embarrassing baggage of the Christian community through time, also known as tradition. I think there is considerable merit in Jacobs’ argument, and it has a great deal to do with why Lewis, unlike Chesterton, is so very popular with Protestants, and especially evangelical Protestants.

Chesterton exulted in the specific, the particular, the thus and soness and thereness of things. What others viewed as embarrassments of the Catholic tradition he embraced as an opportunity to demonstrate that something manifestly wrong was, upon closer examination, but the shadow side of something greatly right. 

From childhood on, it seems that Chesterton had a keen appreciation that almost everything could be perceived as being otherwise. That is to say, the way we perceive reality is not abstractly universal but dramatically contingent. The key thing is to see what is there. This understanding is at the heart of his Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox, a book that the distinguished Thomist, Etienne Gilson, called one of the greatest ever written on the Angelic Doctor. (I had long been familiar with Gilson’s praise of the book but thought it was in the nature of a courteous aside or maybe a book blurb. Pearce provides the full text of what Gilson said, and his praise of Chesterton’s treatment of Thomas obviously reflects his very considered judgment.)

To say that Chesterton’s reality was dramatically contingent is in no way to suggest that he would have any sympathy for the fashions of postmodernity in which reality is “socially constructed.” Quite the opposite is the case. For Chesterton, the “truth” was never in quotation marks. It was more like Dr. Johnson’s kicking the stone in response to Bishop Berkeley’s philosophical construction of reality. Although in Chesterton’s case it was a matter of being kicked by the stone, by the very thereness of things. From early on, he was aware of the seductive possibilities of being deceived by worlds of our own imaginative creation. Although it is not the point that Pearce is making, this is evident in a passage on Chesterton and homosexuality.

As a schoolboy, Chesterton encountered the usual homoerotic undercurrents, and was fascinated for a time by a fellow who played at being a diabolist. GKC later wrote, “I have since heard that he died; it may be said, I think, that he committed suicide; though he did it with tools of pleasure, not with tools of pain. God help him, I know the road he went; but I have never known or even dared to think what was that place at which he stopped and [so I] refrained.”

We can play at being devils or the Devil’s playmates. It can even be exciting. But it is false and therefore it is deadly. Long before John Paul II and Vaclav Havel popularized the phrase, Chesterton’s was a passion to “live in the truth.” The phrase is but a riff on the words of Jesus, “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” The alternative to being free is to be dead. Chesterton was exuberantly free. And, he would quickly add, he was free because he was bound to be free, being bound by the truth.

The Master of Paradox
To speak of being bound to be free is to indulge a trope that, let it be admitted, Chesterton sometimes overindulged, his beloved paradox. It is no disrespect to note that frequently the Chestertonian paradox does not bear close logical examination, being more verbal sleight of hand than substance.

On the other hand, a man standing on his head and waving his legs, which is Chesterton’s image for a paradox, doesn’t bear close logical examination either. The spectacle, if it means anything at all, is to point to something in the vicinity of the spectacle. But the paradoxical phrase “bound to be free” does stand up to the most rigorous examination, if it is understood that the binding is to the truth. For Chesterton, Christianity, by which he means Catholic Christianity, frees because it is, quite simply, the truth about everything.

Paradox, Chesterton insisted, does not obfuscate but illuminates. When praised for his mastery of the paradoxical trope, Chesterton responded that God, not he, is the master of paradox. His friend Maisie Ward explained it this way: “What it amounted to was roughly this: paradox must be of the nature of things because of God’s infinity and the limitations of the world and of man’s mind. To us limited human beings God can express His idea only in fragments. We can bring together apparent contradictions in those fragments whereby a greater truth is suggested. If we do this in a sudden or incongruous manner we startle the unprepared and arouse the cry of paradox. But if we will not do it we shall miss a great deal of truth.” Chesterton’s discovery was that Catholicism is large enough and various enough to accommodate all the paradoxical combinations by which the fullness of truth is revealed. The Church is, he said in a typically fetching formulation, “the trysting place of all the truths in the world.”

A trysting place is where lovers meet, and Chesterton’s was a lifelong affair with the truth that has entered into liaison with all the truths in the world. But to pull this off you have to actually live in the trysting place, which means to live in the truth, which means to live in Christ, which means to live in the Church that is the presence of Christ through time. The Church, he asserted, is ever so much larger from the inside than from the outside. To the modern mind and its notion of freedom, becoming a Catholic was to enter into an obedience that narrowed one’s horizons.

Chesterton contended that precisely the opposite is the case. Obedience (from the Latin obedire) means responsive listening, and the invitation of the Church is an invitation to the high road of freedom. How could there be anything confining about listening and responding to an invitation to dance with all the truths in the world? Obedience, for Chesterton, is not a matter of closing down one’s critical faculties but of putting them in proper order. Doctrine and dogma provide a framework for intellectual inquiry that is otherwise random, impulsive, and idiosyncratic. “To become a Catholic,” he wrote, “is not to leave off thinking but to learn how to think.”

David Fagerberg treats insightfully the ways in which those who resist entering into the trysting place of Christ and his Church often seem to be fearful of a closed and confining space. One might say they are claustrophobic. Fagerberg agrees with Chesterton, however, in suggesting that the more common phenomenon is that people resist because they are agoraphobic. They are afraid of the wide-open public spaces that freedom calls home. The Catholic Church does not so much provide a refuge and resting place as it launches one into all the worlds — spiritual, mystical, intellectual, historical — that are engaged by all the truths in the world. Faith as adventure is at the heart of Chesterton’s exuberance.

Chesterton surely understood that there is a wideness in God’s mercy, but his characteristic accent was on the wildness in God’s mercy. If you are living in the truth, you can with defiant, almost swashbuckling, confidence take on all comers. James Joyce, not the most orthodox of Catholics, said the Catholic Church is Here Comes Everybody. I don’t know if Chesterton ever commented on that way of putting it, but my hunch is that he would have rather liked it. A church that is not marked by paradox, that trims history and the excesses of life and thought to fit its preferences — in short, a church that is not wild — could not be the trysting place of all the truths in the world.

 

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Some Quotes on Personhood

May 20, 2014
AllegoryBosch

How else, but for Christ, could we have known that God loves us? I mean really loves us, not just with proper philanthropy but with utterly improper passion. Even if any man dared to hope this, what ground could there possibly be for such a crazy hope? What data do we have? What evidence? Certainly not nature (“nature red in tooth and claw”), or human life (“solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”), or human history (“the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples is sacrificed”). The only data we have to know that God is love is Christ.

Jesus knew the crucial answer to the crucial question of metaphysics because He was a Jew. The ultimate truth of metaphysics, the nature of ultimate reality, reality at its most real, was not the unknowable mystery to the Jews that it was to all the pagan tribes, nations, and religions around them. This was not because the Jews were smarter than anyone else. It was because Ultimate Reality, for reasons known only to Himself, had chosen to reveal Himself to them as to no one else. God had come out of hiding. In fact, He had told them His name. And that name was “I AM.” “I” is the name of a Person, not a Force. God is “He,” not “It.”
Peter Kreeft, Jesus As Metaphysician

The idea of creation, in the proper sense, is a uniquely Jewish idea. It is expressed by a uniquely Jewish word: bara. It is a word that has no equivalent in any other ancient language. It is a verb that never has any subject besides God. Only God can create. For to create means to make out of nothing, lot out of something. It means to make the very existence of something, not just its form, meaning, structure, order, or destiny.

Creating is not just taking new form in old matter; it is making the very existence of the matter. Not once in history did this idea, the idea of a single God creating the very existence of everything else out of nothing at all, ever enter any human mind except that of the Jews and those who learned from them (mainly Christians and Muslims).

Alone among the many ancient gods, the Jewish God was always “He,” never “She” (or “It” or “They” or the Hermaphrodite). For “She” symbolized something immanent, while “He” was transcendent. “She” was the Womb of all things, the cosmic Mother, but “He” was other than Mother Earth. He created the earth, and He came into it from without, as a man comes into a woman. He impregnated nonbeing with being, darkness with light, dead matter with life, history with miracles, minds with revelations, His chosen people with prophets, and souls with salvation. He was transcendent.

That is why only Judaism, of all ancient religions, had no goddesses and no priestesses. For priests are representatives and symbols of gods. Priests mediate not only Man to God but also God to Man. Women can represent Man to God as well as men can, for women are equally human, valuable, good, and pious. But women cannot represent this God to Man, for God is not our Mother but our Father. Earth is our Mother.
Peter Kreeft, Jesus As Metaphysician

And here is a second unique Jewish belief: that the divine Will is perfectly good and righteous and holy and just. God is the only god you can’t bribe. And since that is the character of Ultimate Reality — and since in order to be really real we must conform to the character of Ultimate Reality — therefore the meaning of life is to be holy, to be a saint. Morality flows from metaphysics because goodness flows from God. “You must be holy because I the Lord your God am holy.” The connection is repeated like a liturgical formula in the Torah.

Unlike the gods of the polytheists and unlike the god of the pantheists, God has no dark side. And that is why we shouldn’t have a dark side either. The consequences of the Jewish metaphysics for ethics have been world-shaking. The whole world got a Jewish mother, a Jewish conscience, because the world got the Jewish Father. This divine goodness is not just perfect, it is more than perfect. It spills out beyond itself like sunlight. It is agape, generosity, altruism, self-giving, self-sacrificial love. God seeks intimacy with Man, God seeks to marry Man. “Your creator shall become your Husband,” says Isaiah (54:5).

To that end, He makes covenants, to prepare for the fundamental covenant, marriage. No pagan ever suspected the possibility of such intimacy, even with their finite, anthropomorphic gods: that is, the relationship scripture calls “faith,” or fidelity. And therefore no pagan ever understood the deeper meaning and terror of “sin” either, for sin is the breaking of that relationship. Sin is to faith what infidelity is to marriage. Only one who knows the wonder of marriage can know the horror of infidelity.
Peter Kreeft, Jesus As Metaphysician

How else, but for Christ, could we have known that God loves us? I mean really loves us, not just with proper philanthropy but with utterly improper passion. Even if any man dared to hope this, what ground could there possibly be for such a crazy hope? What data do we have? What evidence? Certainly not nature (“nature red in tooth and claw”), or human life (“solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”), or human history (“the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples is sacrificed”). The only data we have to know that God is love is Christ.
Peter Kreeft, Jesus As Metaphysician

Fr. Norris interprets Aquinas for us:
Being is not just presence, but active presence, tending by nature to pour over into active self-manifestation and self-communication to others. And if personal being is really being itself only at its supra-material levels, then it follows that to be a person as such is to be a being that tends by nature to pour over into active, conscious self-manifestation and self-communication to others, through intellect and will working together.

And if the person in question is a good person, i.e., rightly ordered in its conscious free action, then this active presence to others will take the form of willing what is truly good for them, which is itself a definition of love in its broadest meaning, defined by Thomas as “willing good to another for its own sake.”
To be a person, then, is to be a bi-polar being that is at once present in itself, actively possessing itself by its self-consciousness (its substantial pole), and also actively oriented towards others, toward active loving self-communication to others (its relational pole).

To be an authentic person, in a word, is to be a lover, to live a life of interpersonal self-giving and receiving. Person is essentially a “we” term. Person exists in its fullness only in the plural.

As Jacques Maritain puts it felicitously:

Thus it is that when a man has been really awakened to the sense of being or existence, and grasps intuitively the obscure, living depth of the Self and subjectivity, he discovers by the same token the basic generosity of existence and realizes, by virtue of the inner dynamism of this intuition, that love is not a passing pleasure or emotion, but the very meaning of his being alive.
Jacques Maritain, Existence and the Existent

Thus subjectivity reveals itself as “self-mastery for self-giving .. . by spiritual existing in the manner of a gift.”
Jacques Maritain, Challenges and Renewals

Josef Pieper has also caught well the intrinsic bipolarity of personal being as spirit, when, commenting on a brief sentence of St. Thomas, he unfolds it thus:

The higher the form of intrinsic existence, the more developed becomes the relatedness with reality, also the more profound and comprehensive becomes the sphere of this relationship: namely, the world. And the deeper such relations penetrate the world of reality, the more intrinsic becomes the subject’s existence. . . These two aspects combined — dwelling most intensively within itself, and being capax universi, able to grasp the universe — together constitute the essence of the spirit. Any definition of “spirit” will have to contain these two aspects as its core.
Josef Pieper, Living the Truth

Transpose “spirit” into “person,” as being itself existing on the spiritual level, and Pieper and I are both expressing the same insight.
Fr. W. Norris Clarke, Person, Being, and St. Thomas

Viewed from the person’s relational perspective with reality and others, it becomes clear that “the person cannot be looked on as primarily an isolated, self-sufficient individual, with freely chosen relations added on as a merely occasional, accidental complement [the error of secularism]. The person is intrinsically ordered toward togetherness with other human persons — and any other persons accessible to it — i.e., toward friendship, community, and society.” I refer you once again to Simone Weil’s list of declarations of our obligation toward our fellow human beings to see how human relation and relatedness serves her purposes in creating that list:

  •  The human body is above all in need of food, warmth, sleep, hygiene, rest, exercise, clean air.
  • The human soul needs equality and hierarchy.
  • The human soul has a need for consented obedience and for freedom.
  • The human soul is in need of truth and of freedom of expression.
  • The human soul needs, on the one hand, isolation and intimacy, on the other, social life.
  • The human soul needs personal and collective property.
  • The human soul needs punishment and honor.
  • The human soul needs disciplined participation in a common task of public interest, and personal initiative in that participation.
  • The human soul needs security and risk.
  • The human soul needs above all to feel rooted in various natural milieus and to communicate with the universe through them. The homeland, milieus defined by language, by culture, by a common historical past, by the profession, the locality, are examples of natural environments. Everything that results in the uprooting of a human being or which has the effect of preventing him from growing roots is criminal.

Call it human soul or person or spirit, this is who we are and how we need to treat each other. It is precisely what the atheist secular society rejects in its insistence on the “individual,” “rights,” and “fairness” code words for excusing the worst sort of morality and behavior.

As Aquinas himself puts it in a beautiful little aside:“It is natural for man to take delight in living together with other human beings.” [Summa Theologiae, II-I11, question 114, article 2 ad 1.]
Thus precisely because to be a person is to be the highest mode of being, the fullest expression of what it means to be, person means at once that which stands in itself as a self-possessing, autonomous center and at the same time, by the very dynamism of its self-possession, that whose whole being is oriented toward others, especially other persons, in self-communicative expression and sharing of itself, as interpersonal.

Thus one of the small but growing number of contemporary Thomists who have caught on to the intrinsically relational aspect of both being and person, Norbert Hoffman, can speak of “this movement of the pro, this self-openness towards the other” (most luminously manifested in the revelation of divine being as self-communicative interpersonal love), as “the primal mystery and the first of all impulses in the heart of being. All of its own, and not because of subsequent determination, Being posits itself as communicatio; its essential form is called ‘love.”
Fr. W. Norris Clarke, Person, Being, and St. Thomas

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