Archive for the ‘Fr. Ronald Knox’ Category


What Is Religion? — Monsignor Ronald Knox

December 27, 2013
The truth is that the word "religion" under the Christian dispensation has changed its meaning. It does not stand for a mere attitude, it stands for a transaction; if you will, for the paying off of a debt. Religion, in our sense, means the offering up of a man's self to God; for us Christians, it means the offering up to God of Jesus Christ, the perfect Victim once for all immolated in our stead, and of ourselves in union with that sacrifice. It means an adoration which aims, if that were possible, at annihilating our own creaturely existence so as to give God the honor which is his due. Religion in our sense is a claim; the claim which God has upon us for worship of whatever kind, and in whatever currency, he demands. Religion is as real as the world around us, as that watermelon on that table there, not some food additive whipped up in a lab that seems just like it but lives in a test tube.

The truth is that the word “religion” under the Christian dispensation has changed its meaning. It does not stand for a mere attitude, it stands for a transaction; if you will, for the paying off of a debt. Religion, in our sense, means the offering up of a man’s self to God; for us Christians, it means the offering up to God of Jesus Christ, the perfect Victim once for all immolated in our stead, and of ourselves in union with that sacrifice. It means an adoration which aims, if that were possible, at annihilating our own creaturely existence so as to give God the honor which is his due. Religion in our sense is a claim; the claim which God has upon us for worship of whatever kind, and in whatever currency, he demands. Religion is as real as the world around us, as that watermelon on that table there, not some food additive whipped up in a lab that seems just like it but lives in a test tube. “Taste and see,” as we Catholics say. Just make sure you have a real slice of watermelon…

What is Religion? Why do you shy from saying you are “religious?” A good question for so many of us who prefer to see ourselves as “spiritual” rather than “religious.” Here’s a good analysis of what the word used to mean which gives a good indication of what all those “spiritual” folks are fleeing from: stuff like commitment, vows, humbling ourselves in the presence of almighty God.


Stevenson, I think in Virginibus Puerisque, has preserved for us a letter written to a man by his aunt, on the subject of a young lady who would, she thought, be a good person for this nephew of hers to marry. And she goes through a list of the various talents and accomplishments the young lady has, mentioning among others, “about as much religion as my William likes”.

I think in any discussion of religion it is important to rule out that idea of it from the first. It is not a kind of accomplishment, like painting on china, of which it is important that the débutante should have a smattering so as to increase her value in the matrimonial market. It is fair to mention that I think “my William” is a rather common figure in the non-Catholic world; he rather prefers it if the girl he wants to marry is mildly religious in that sort of way; and it is our fault if we let that idea of what religion means become current.

It is because we practice religion in a rather languid, external way that people get the impression it is a sort of bloom on the surface of our lives which makes us more attractive people; a sort of added grace of character which some people have, some haven’t. Whatever else it is — let us be clear about that from the outset — religion is something we belong to, not something which belongs to us; something that has got hold of us, not something we have got hold of. It is something which determines our whole approach and our whole relation to life; if it is not that, if it is to be a mere fad or a mere pose, it had better be cut out altogether.

That you can see even from its derivation. I don’t think there can be any real doubt that it is derived from the Latin verb religare, to bind, to tie down. I don’t apologize for inflicting Latin verbs on you, because in a curious way you can say that religion is both a Latin word and a Latin thing, whereas theology is a Greek word and a Greek thing. The Greeks liked to talk about the gods, bring them into speeches and lend a tone to literature with them, but they didn’t like doing anything about them; they lived by their philosophy, if they lived by any rule at all.

Whereas the Romans, till they began to go Greek, were forever worrying about taboos and ceremonies and omens; they lived a life haunted by the unseen, and they were always trying to dodge the implications of it. Above all, religion meant that if you swore an oath you had got to keep it; it bound you. That predominating sense has survived in modern ecclesiastical language. When we talk about monks or nuns as “religious” what we are saying is not that they are holier people than ourselves, though no doubt they usually are holier people than ourselves. What we are saying is that they are bound by vows, and we are not. They can’t go out and get drunk even if they want to.

When we have said that, we have said enough to make ourselves feel that religion is a rather unpleasant thing. In the first place because it seems to be no better, at least in its origins, than a kind of magic. And in the second place because it is something merely negative; it is a drag upon one’s life, not an inspiration to live by. Let us take those two objections in that order.

I think I am right in saying that it is bad anthropology to regard magic as the ancestor of religion. It would be truer to say that magic is the ancestor of science. The medical man of today comes down to us from the medicine man of centuries ago; but the centuries have been centuries of trial and error, so he knows his stuff better. The business of the scientist, as of the magician, is first to discover the causes of things and then to avoid their effects. He is trying to exploit man’s surroundings in the interests of man.

But religion, you see, is just the other way up; its object, if you can put the thing as crudely as that, is to exploit man in the interest of his surroundings. The magician tries to see how much he can get out of God for man; the priest tries to see how much he can get out of man for God. Of course, in any primitive society the two things are always getting mixed up, and it isn’t easy to say where religion begins and magic ends. In setting out to make amends to the god you have somehow offended, you are also trying to get rid of the drought or the cholera which he has sent to punish you. But in idea the two things are separate.

And not only are they separate in idea, but they develop as time goes on in opposite directions. Magic thins out into scientific research; tabooism thins out into a religion of personal holiness. One pedigree ends in Rutherford, the other in Gandhi. Science gets more and more externalized; drops the spells and the incantations, sticks to the lancet and the pills. Religion gets more and more internalized, comes to regard the action of worshipping the image as less important than the attitude of the worshipper towards his god, the lustral water as less important than purity of life.

I have been talking so far of unrevealed, and therefore of false, religions; but those of you who know anything about the Old Testament will realize that much of what I have been saying goes, also, for the partial revelation which Almighty God made to the Jews. The chief mission and the chief difficulty of the Jewish prophets was to persuade their fellow-countrymen that it wasn’t much good trying to appease God with the blood of bulls and goats if you went on bearing false witness and oppressing the poor at the same time. Religion wasn’t meant to tie you down from touching a dead body or seething a kid in its mother’s milk. It was meant to tie you down to a rule of right living, a rule of love towards God and towards your fellow man.

And now we have to consider the other objection, that religion is by its very definition, and therefore in its very nature, a purely negative thing, always telling you not to do something, never telling you to do something. All these taboos which you find in the old Roman religion, and also in most savage religions, are not, after all, the stuff of which they are made. One can imagine some primitive set of people who were bound by a whole code of regulations as negative and as meaningless as the instinct which makes some people always want to walk on the paving-stones, never setting foot on the cracks between the paving-stones.

But as a matter of fact you don’t find that. The whole point of religion is to believe in the existence of some power or powers behind the scenes, and believe that it is important for you to keep on the right side of them. They haunt a particular spot; there is, as the Romans would have said, a religio loci; it is up to you to avoid that spot, because it would be blundering in on a set of powers who are too big for you; and you do avoid it, just as you would avoid the cracks between the paving-stones if you thought that some deity inhabited the cracks between the paving-stones.

There is a particular day of the month which is for some reason held sacred to one of those powers; and it may be you observe that day in a negative way — say, by not going out to battle; but once more the prohibition implies something positive; you don’t unaccountably avoid that day in the first instance and invent a deity afterwards to account for your reluctance. No, you have the feeling that you are hedged about by majestic presences belonging to another world than this world which you see, and the nearer you come in contact with them, the more you have to be on your good behavior; that is all.

If you do go near the sacred spot, you must somehow mark the difference by your own behavior; you must take your shoes off, for example. Not wearing your shoes is something negative; and so natural is it to mark the difference by not doing something, that you are led to describe your attitude towards these powers as an attitude of negation; it is a religio, something which restrains you.

But your reason is not a negative one, it is a positive one; you feel you are not alone — there is Somebody just behind that tree. How far this feeling of the uncanny, this sense that certain places, for example, are haunted by supernatural presences, can be used to prove the truth of religion, I don’t know. It is fashionable, I believe, to argue that this sense of awe, this sense of the “numinous”, is a thing which could not be explained if there were not something real behind it. I am never very fond of that kind of argument myself.

But I do think you can say this; that if mankind generally, for thousands of years, has been in the habit of recognizing, and living up to, the presence of an unseen spiritual world, it is likely that this attitude of worship is part of man’s natural make-up. He is the only animal that finds it comfortable to remain on bent knees. Dis to minorem quod geris, imperas; if we are lords of creation, it is only as the vassals of an Overlord higher than ourselves — if it were not so, how could we be so ludicrously incomplete, so undignified, so dissatisfied as we are?

Say, if you like, that our habit of addressing worship to Powers whom we think of as reigning above us is an inference, perhaps an unconscious inference, from that feeling of inferiority. Say, if you will, that it is an instinct, which neither has nor demands an explanation, apart from the obvious explanation that a supernatural world really exists, containing Powers that are worthy of worship. What seems evident in either case is that we are built to be a half-way house between the natural and the supernatural; that adoration is a congenital posture with us. If we try to rise above our own level we immediately sink beneath our own level, for we lose our place in creation.

And that is, to my mind, I won’t say the most important answer, but the most interesting answer to the next question that comes up to be considered. The question, I mean, “What is the advantage of having a religion, as opposed to having none?” There are all sorts of answers, obviously, that can be given. You can treat it as a mere question of happiness; point out how much fuller life is if you believe that Man has a tangible end to fulfill, and is doing so under the eyes of a benign Task-master — still more if you believe, as our religion teaches and many others teach, that there will be a reward for us, in another world, if the task is well done.

You can treat it as a question of intellectual satisfaction; point out that all the riddles which our thought comes up against, as it tries this avenue of speculation or that, become less of a nightmare to us if we believe that there is a supreme Intelligence which knows the answer to them all, even where it is hidden from us. You can treat it as a question of general human wellbeing: how long would it be before we threw over all the restraints of morality, if we did not believe that there were supernatural sanctions at the back of all our ideas of right and wrong? Oh, to be sure, we all know good atheists.

But we all have the feeling about them that they are, as it were, chewing the cud of that Christianity in which their ancestors believed; they are living up to a code which is in fact Christian, although they do not acknowledge it. Construct a godless civilization and you do not have to wait long before you find out whether the children bred in it acquire pretty habits or not. All that is true; that the world would be very much poorer if it had no leaven of religion in it, and that a great many of us, who haven’t got good digestions to start with, would find life a pretty poor show if there were no elements in the make-up of it besides those which we meet with in the daily experience of our senses.

But, as I say, I think the most interesting answer to the question, “What difference does religion make?” is just to point at the people who haven’t got any, and leave it to be solved by inspection. I don’t mean the happy-go-lucky people who don’t seem to bother about religion or anything else much; they can be quite good company. But your professionally irreligious person, if I may use that phrase, is such a bad advertisement, I think, for his absence of religion.

I don’t want to put a name to it, to describe their atmosphere as one of bumptiousness, or as one of priggishness, or as one of shocking bad manners; I would prefer to say that there is something definitely subhuman about it; there’s a blind spot in them which makes all human commerce with them difficult, which makes the room seem more comfortable when they have gone out of it. But that may be only a personal fad of mine, so I won’t go on about it.

But no, there’s a very important point to be raised which we haven’t raised yet. Granted that religion is all we say, that it makes people happier, makes them less bewildered, makes them better citizens, makes them (if I am any judge of the matter) more comfortable people to meet — is it necessary that the religion one holds should be true? Or will a bogus one do? You see, we have been treating religion, after all, as if it were a mere attitude one can adopt towards life, and as we think a worthwhile attitude.

But surely it would be equally effective if, as a matter of fact, there were no supernatural realities behind it. The peace of Europe can be preserved as long as this country thinks that country has a secret weapon capable of finishing any war in forty-five minutes; the existence of the weapon doesn’t matter as long as it is thought to be there. The question, I need hardly say, is not often raised in that form. But it is often raised in the subsidiary form, “Does it matter what a man believes, or how much he believes, as long as it gives him that religious attitude towards life which, everybody agrees, is so valuable?”

You meet that doubt in any number of forms; people telling you that one kind of Christianity is as valuable as another, as long as it makes people good and happy, and therefore we Catholics oughtn’t to proselytize. Public men getting up and telling us that England is finished unless we can introduce some religion into the Youth Movement, without saying what religion.

People like Aldous Huxley making out that mysticism is the only thing which is worth having, and whether it is Christian or Buddhist mysticism is only a matter of detail. People like his brother wondering if we couldn’t make do with a kind of synthetic religion — “emotion tinged with morality”, the Victorians used to call it — based not on any belief in the supernatural world but on a conspiracy to behave as if the supernatural world was there. All that happens, you see, the moment you start going about saying that religion is a good thing. You are understood, not unreasonably, to mean that the religious attitude is a good thing. Is religion just that, or something more? Where does the Credo come into it?

The truth is that the word “religion” under the Christian dispensation has changed its meaning. It does not stand for a mere attitude, it stands for a transaction; if you will, for the paying off of a debt. Religion, in our sense, means the offering up of a man’s self to God; for us Christians, it means the offering up to God of Jesus Christ, the perfect Victim once for all immolated in our stead, and of ourselves in union with that sacrifice. It means an adoration which aims, if that were possible, at annihilating our own creaturely existence so as to give God the honor which is his due.

Religion in our sense is a claim; the claim which God has upon us for worship of whatever kind, and in whatever currency, he demands. The Jews under the old dispensation were not making a foolish mistake in offering up bulls and rams, however primitive, mechanical and messy that kind of sacrifice may seem to us. They were doing what he told them to do, acknowledging their creatureliness and mystically immolating it to him by taking the life of dumb creatures. He has done us a greater honor; he demands of us, more explicitly and more stringently than of them, that we should offer up ourselves, souls and bodies, as a reasonable sacrifice; that is, a human sacrifice, not one of brute beasts. Religion is adoring God.

Incidentally, it does claim from us a conditioning of our behavior; we are to live the Christ-imitating life. That demand still ties us down; or shall we rather say that it ties us up? That is integrates us, makes of our souls a unity, in which reason governs the other faculties, and reason itself is subject to God? But equally, religion claims from us the adherence of our intellect to truths which God has revealed; a Christ-imitating life which still denies him the homage of believing what he tells us is a life imperfectly Christian.

Don’t let us sit down, then, under descriptions of “religion” or “Christianity” which imply that it is simply a dodge to keep you straight at school. The world around us is all too ready to talk in that way, and to rejoice if we allow it to be assumed that we agree with the description. God knows we have to be careful, in a censorious society, not to let it be said that we Catholics don’t bother much about the moral, or the civic, virtues.

But don’t let us imagine that any code of conduct, keeping our word, or controlling our senses, or being kind towards our neighbors, is itself the Christian thing. It is only the flower springing from the root; and the root is humbling ourselves, offering ourselves, annihilating ourselves, in the presence of Almighty God.


The Catholic Notion of God — Monsignor Ronald Knox

March 30, 2012

The Old King by Georges Roualt, 1937

If the arguments adduced in the foregoing posts are valid, they commit us not only to a belief in the Existence of God, but to certain views as to his Nature. I do not mean to discuss or even enumerate here, as a text-book of theology would, the various Attributes of God, for fear of unduly crowding the canvas. It is enough for our present purposes to insist that the God who is postulated by a consideration of his works in Nature must be a transcendent God, an omnipotent God, and a personal God.

The very nerve of our contention is that the material world which meets us in our experience does not provide the explanation of its own existence, or of the forces which control it, or of the laws which govern it; that the explanation, consequently, must be looked for in something that is outside and beyond itself. Our thought can only be satisfied by the existence of some necessary Being, to which all this contingent existence around us, the world of creation, is secondary, and upon which it depends.

Upon which, or rather, upon whom. We must always explain the lower in terms of the higher, not the higher in terms of the lower. And the highest form of existence of which we have any experience is Spirit. Man finds himself possessed of this apparently unique privilege, that he can become the object of his own thought. He can focus his attention, not merely upon things outside himself, but upon himself the thinker, upon himself thinking. Adam must have had many strange experiences when he woke in Paradise, but none stranger than that of meeting himself. The difference between this self-consciousness and mere consciousness is as real, as vital, as the difference between consciousness itself and mere life, or the difference between life and mere existence.

This spiritual principle, this self-conscious life within man, is not accounted for (still less explained) by his needs as a mere citizen of the natural creation. It is something altogether outside the scheme of ordinary organic life; it exists for its own sake, and must therefore be regarded as a higher order of existence. It is to this higher order of existence, naturally, that he refers that highest of all possible existences which he calls by the name of God.

It has been a favorite taunt of the unbeliever, from Xenophanes down to Rupert Brooke, that if horses had conceived of theology, they would have imagined God like themselves, if fishes had invented a theology, they would have imagined God like themselves. The criticism is one of those which miss the mark so completely as to provide their own refutation. For the fact is that man is superior to horses and fishes in one point, namely, his self-consciousness, his spiritual life; and it is precisely in virtue of that spiritual quality, and of that alone, that he has dared to conceive of God as like to himself.

He conceives of God not as a Big Man, but as a Great Spirit, lacking precisely those features of inferiority which link man, in his dual nature, to the brutes. Man’s soul, which in memory, in intellect, and in will stands outside of and superior to the accidents of his mortality, is the only mirror he finds in Nature of that pure Act, that tireless Energy which is God.

And if God be Spirit, then he is a personal God. For all our experience of spirit, all our evidence for its existence, rests upon the first-hand consciousness which each man has of himself, and second-hand indications which point to the existence of a similar consciousness in his neighbor. Each spirit, as it is given to us in our experience, is a lonely point of conscious existence. Matter, as we know it, may enter into various combinations and assume various forms; we do not meet with spirit, we only meet with spirits.

And the notion that God is, not a Spirit, but the totality of existing spirits and nothing more; the notion that he is Spirit and not a Spirit is pure mythology. It overlooks that individuality, that incommunicableness, which belongs to all spirits in our experience. It is not suggested, of course, that the Being who created us is subject to all the limitations which our minds may happen to associate with the word “personality”. But in thinking of God as a Spirit, we cannot rule out the idea of conscious individuality; for that idea is essential to our whole conception of a spiritual nature.

We must not conceal from ourselves the fact that in so defining the Nature of God as transcendent, omnipotent, and personal, we have parted company with a great number of the more religiously affected of mankind. We have said nothing, so far, which could not be echoed by a Jew or by a Mohammedan. But we have quarreled, already, with that pantheistic conception of the Divine Being which has had such a profound influence on other religions of the East.

The vice of pantheism is that its theology takes Life, not Spirit, as its point of departure. Dichotomizing the world (wrongly) into matter and life, the pantheist assumes that the animal organism is the mirror of the universe. As, in the animal, matter finds a principle of life to organize it, so the whole sum of matter in existence must have a Life to organize it; a Life which is the summing up of all the life (vegetable or animal) which exists.

This Life is God; God is to the world what the soul (in the widest sense) is to the body. Thus, on the one hand, the pantheist theology contrives to give an explanation of existence which is no explanation at all; for the totality of our experience plus a World-Soul does not, by reason of the addition, provide any account of how or why it came into existence. And on the other hand it encumbers our thought with the concept of a God who is no God; who is, indeed, but an abstraction, as animal life divorced from matter is an abstraction; who can neither affect our destinies, nor prescribe our conduct, nor claim our worship; impotent, unmoral, and only demanding by courtesy the typographical compliment of a capital G.

So sharply is the God whom we Catholics worship — we Catholics, with the Jews and the Mohammedans — divided from the notion of deity which has syncretized, spiritualized, or superseded the many-headed monsters of the pagan East. Is the God of modern Protestantism so clearly marked off horn his Oriental counterpart? I confess that I entertain acute and growing misgivings on this point.

The tendency of Protestantism is to find its evidence of God’s existence rather in some supposed Instinct or intuition than in any inference from premises grounded in experience. But such methods of proof, even granted their validity, would only warrant us in accepting the fact of his existence, without telling us anything about Iris Nature. Most men believe in God; yes, but then a very large percentage of them are pantheists of one shade or another; the common belief of mankind does not, then, proclaim the existence of a Deity who is transcendent. There is in man’s nature an itch for worship, an instinct for religion; yes, but what sort of religion? Why should not Buddhism (for example) satisfy the craving?

Mystics have had direct experience of God’s Presence; it behooves us, then, to trust their experience rather than our own earth-bound imaginations — yes, but which mystics? The Christian or the Buddhist mystics? Unless we are prepared to fall back on the doctrine of Descartes and Berkeley, who would make God immediately responsible for those ideas through which alone we come in contact with any outside reality, it seems to me that all “direct” proofs of God’s existence yield only a blank formula, which we have no intellectual apparatus for filling in.

What kind of God, then, does Protestantism mean to propose for our worship? Our Idealist philosophers, still mournfully chewing the cud of Hegelianism, have no assurance to offer, either that God is omnipotent, or in what sense he is personal. There remains only the moral argument to distinguish Protestantism in its more adventurous forms from the cruder forms of pantheism. Doubtless it will always be held, at least in the Western Hemisphere, that the Supreme Being, however conceived, must be the summing-up of all those aspirations towards goodness which our own moral experience teaches us to indulge.

But is such a God necessarily the Judge of living and dead? Is it permissible to pray to him, in the sense of asking for favors which he can grant? Has he the Attributes of the God whom Jesus of Nazareth preached, and claimed, apparently, to reveal? Surely it is time that Protestant theologians should consider seriously the very fundamentals of their thought; and this question not least, What do we know of God’s Nature; and on what basis of thought does that knowledge rest? For in this matter the ideas of their hall hearted supporters are lamentably incoherent; and such hesitation may easily lend a handle, before long, to the propaganda of Theosophy.

The doctrine of God’s Omnipotence carries with it a further admission which will be of considerable importance in, the permanent possibility of miracle. If the laws of the natural creation are not an expression of God’s Nature, as the pantheist would hold, but merely of his Will, it follows that he is at liberty, if he will, to suspend their action; or rather, to supersede their action by that of higher laws which have not been made known to us. It is only reasonable — would that it were as common as it is reasonable — to have a clear notion as to the possibility of miracles happening, before we come to estimate the evidence, debatable in itself as all historical evidence must be, which claims that miracles have actually occurred in history.

A century and a half ago, it would have been necessary to investigate carefully, in this connection, the philosophic system known as Deism. It was but natural that the triumphs of mechanical science in the eighteenth century should impose on men’s minds the idea of mechanism; it was but natural that the Christian apologetic of the period should reflect this idea in its turn. Deism asserts strongly the first two scholastic proofs of God’s existence, while neglecting the third. If we think of God merely as the First Cause and the Prime Mover, it is not necessary to think of him as influencing the course of the natural Creation here and now.

You may think of him, instead, at some moment in the infinitely remote past, fashioning a world, giving it laws, physical and biological, to guide its movements, and then turning it adrift, like a ship with its tiller lashed, to reach its inevitable and foreseen destiny. Paley’s metaphor of the watch once for all wound up is, of course, the classic illustration of this Deist conception. It represents God as having made the universe, but not as guiding it from moment to moment, still less as actually holding it in being. Such a system was considerably embarrassed to find room for the possibility of miracle. To intrude miracle upon a cosmos so governed would have been to put a spoke in the wheels of the machine, with consequences fatally disturbing to the scheme of the whole.

Deism, nowadays, is cited only as a vagary of the past; it has few, if any, living supporters. It is hardly necessary, then, to remind the reader that laws do not carry themselves out; they are principles which need an executive to enforce them; and to conceive the laws of Nature as acting on their own initiative, independently of God’s concurrence, is to personify those laws, if not actually to deify them. The Catholic notion of God’s relation to the universe is summed up once for all in our Lord’s statement that no sparrow can fall to the ground without our Heavenly Father; there can be no event, however insignificant, however apparently fortuitous, however cruel in its bearing on the individual, which does not demand, here and now, the concurrence of the Divine Power.

I do not mean that Catholic thought bases this belief on our Lord’s utterance; it belongs to natural, not to revealed theology. God alone exists necessarily; our existence is contingent, depends, that is to say, from moment to moment upon an exercise of his will; he has not left the reins, he has not lashed the tiller; he works not by means of the laws, but only according to the laws, which he has laid down for himself in determining the governance of his creatures.

It will easily be seen that, once this view of the Divine economy is grasped, there can be no further talk of ruling out miracles on the ground of impossibility. It is still open to the objector to say that it would be inconsistent with our idea of’ God’s dignity to imagine him as interfering with his own laws; or that it would be a criticism on those laws themselves to suppose they could ever need to be suspended in favor of an individual need. Such objections we shall have to meet later; for the present, it is enough to point out that miracles, so far as their possibility is concerned, do fit into the scheme of things. Indeed, to describe God as Almighty is to admit that miracles are possible.

The difficulty, it may even be said, for our human imaginations is to understand the fall of the sparrow rather than to understand the feeding of the Five Thousand. For in the fall of the sparrow, as in the feeding of the multitude, the Divine Power is at work; only in this case the concurrence of God as the Primary Cause with those secondary “causes”, which we are apt to imagine as complete in themselves, is a thing as baffling to the imagination as it is necessary to thought.

We have been considering only the first article of the Creed which Catholics and Protestants alike recognize, “I believe in God the Father Almighty.” It will be seen that the outline of the Catholic system is already beginning to take shape on the canvas; it begins already to stand out in relief, not only as against the pantheistic religions of the East, never attractive to our fellow-countrymen, but against much vagueness and indecision which is to be read or to be suspected in non-Catholic works of theology.

It is not that Protestantism, in its official formularies, finds or has ever found cause of disagreement with us in such fundamental matters as these. But I shall be very much surprised if the arguments which I have adduced, and the conclusions I have inferred from them here do not cause some of my clerical critics to hold up their hands already at the intransigence, the medievalism of the thought which is here represented. The Catholic notion of God ought not to be distinct from the Protestant notion of God, but I fear that in practice a shadow of difference is already discernible between them.

If this is so, it must be attributed, first, to the departmentalism, the absence of system, which reigns among non-Catholic theologians; partly to the spirit of unauthorized adventure which makes them start out gaily in pursuit of some novel thesis; partly to the extreme incuriosity with which the average worshipper regards all details of doctrine. I wish I could think that my estimate of the situation was exaggerated, and my forebodings of the future a scruple.


The God Who Hides Himself II – Msgr. Ronald Knox

March 29, 2012

Crucified Christ. "Rouault was intimate with the writers who formed the nucleus of the Catholic revival, that remarkable literary, intellectual, and -- to a lesser degree -- artistic renewal among France’s lay intelligentsia in the early 20th century. He counted as friends Léon Bloy, J.K. Huysmans and Jacques and Raissa Maritain, both also passionate supporters of his work. He was close to Georges Desvallires, co-founder with Maurice Denis of the Atelier de la Art Sacre.
The Atelier was precursor to the Sacred Art Movement, a brief effort to reanimate sacred art which French Catholic intellectuals agreed was in a dismal state. Huysmans wrote brilliantly on the hemorrhage of bad taste at Lourdes. Maritain similarly rejected conventional religious art as devilish ugliness. Rouault shared their disdain, fearful of admitting sullen convention into his work.Rouault’s penitential vision and epic sweep suited the temper of the years immediately after World War II. MoMA gave him a retrospective in 1945 and the Tate did the same the following year, pairing him with Braque. He exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1948 and enjoyed a flood of exhibitions in the 1950s. France inducted him into the Legion of Honor and, in 1958, gave him a state funeral.
Today, his work is rarely seen. Yet there is every reason to keep his accomplishment alive. Rouault was a graphically gifted, fastidious craftsman sympathetic to a world in travail. His subjects were few: clowns, prostitutes, judges, self-satisfied pillars of society, the down-hearted, and the Passion of Christ. Setting aside religious dimensions, his cast is similar to that of Lautrec, the youthful Picasso, and Daumier.
A Passiontide sensibility infuses his oeuvre with a distinctive solemnity. Isaiah’s man of sorrows, the crucified Christ, serves as an archetype of the human condition. However devout Rouault’s Catholicism, it is a mistake to pigeon-hole him as a devotional painter. He used Biblical iconography -- as did Max Beckmann and other German Expressionists -- as a source of recognizable metaphors. Every generation faces its Calvary and crucifixions accompany history. The lamentations of Jeremiah still resonate."
Maureen Mullarkey

It is possible to give some account of how the idea of God comes into men’s minds. Or again, if each human being independently discovered the idea of God for himself, we might hesitate to ascribe the phenomenon to mere coincidence. But the doctrine of God’s existence is one that is taught to childhood, one that is often bound up, superstitiously, with national hopes, with social ordinances. Even if there were no God, it is probable enough that many people would believe in his existence; it would not be more surprising than the belief in luck, for example, or the belief in omens.

No, the true lesson of this widespread and obstinate Theism among our fellow-men is a slightly different one. The fact that so many men believe in a God ought to set us wondering whether there are not, perhaps, reasons for such a belief, to which we have not hitherto devoted sufficient attention; or perhaps reasons which we scorned to look into, because we had vaguely been given to understand that they were out of date and unfashionable. Mankind’s belief in God is a rebuke to, and a condemnation of, the careless atheist. For it is the height of rashness or of pride to assume without investigation that so large a part of the race is giving credit to an illusion, for the existence of which no rational grounds cm be assigned.

In a word, the existence of religion is a challenge to us to consider eagerly whether there are not grounds for believing in God’s existence, philosophical grounds which will be as cogent for us as they have been for others. When I say “philosophical”, I do not mean that it is the duty of the bushman or of the charcoal-burner to go through a series of carefully arranged scholastic syllogisms. I mean that there exists among mankind a sort of rough, common-sense metaphysic which demands as its first postulate the existence of a divine principle in things. It can be refined, it can be reduced to terms, by the nice ratiocinations of the philosopher; it is equally valid (we hold) whether as it presents itself to the charcoal-burner or as it presents itself to the sage.

The schoolmen, whose method has left its stamp upon all subsequent Catholic apologetics, distinguished five avenues of approach by which we infer, from the conditions of our outward experience, the existence of a God.

  1. In all motion, or rather, as we should say, in all change, you can separate two elements, active and passive, that which is changed and that which changes it. But, in our experience, the agent in such change is not self-determined, but determined in its turn by some higher agent. Can this process go on ad infinitum? No, for an infinite series of agents, none of them self-determined, would not give us the finality which thought demands; there must be, at the beginning of the series, however long, an Agent who is self-determined, who is the ultimate Agent in the whole cycle of changes that proceeds from him.
  2. Similarly, in our experience every event is determined by a cause. But that cause in its turn is itself an event determined by a cause. An infinite series of causes would give no explanation of how the causation ever began. There must therefore be an uncaused Cause, which is the ultimate Cause of the whole nexus of events which proceeds from it.
  3. In our experience, we find nothing which exists in its own right; everything depends for its existence on something else. This is plain in the case of the organized individual; for plants, animals, etc., are born, live, and die; that is to say, their existence is only contingent, not necessary — it depends on conditions outside itself. Now, although the whole sum of matter does not, in our experience, increase or diminish, we cannot think of it as existing necessarily — it is just there. Its existence, then, must depend on something outside itself — something which exists necessarily, of its own right. That Something we call God.
  4. In our experience, there are various degrees of natural perfection. But the existence of the good and the better implies the existence of a Best; for (according to Plato’s sys tern of thought) this Best is itself the cause and the explanation of all good. But this Best is not found in our earthly  experience, therefore it must lie beyond our earthly experience; and it is this Best which we call God.
  5. Everywhere in Nature we observe the effects of order and system. If blind chance ruled everything, this prevalence of order would be inexplicable; it would be a stupendous coincidence. Order can only be conceived as the expression of a Mind; and, though our mind appreciates the existence of order in the world, it is not our mind which has introduced it there. There must therefore exist outside our experience, a Mind of which this order is the expression; and that Mind we call God.

It is often objected that this analysis of the facts is unnecessarily itemized; it repeats the same argument under different forms. For the purposes of the plain man, it may perhaps be admitted that the first three of these arguments are not readily distinguishable. He apprehends God in his Creation, first as all-powerful and the source of all power (1, 2, and 3); then is all-good and the source of all goodness (4); then as all-wise and the source of all wisdom (5). For all the changes that have swept over Europe since the twelfth century, he has not been bullied out of his conviction.

It is true, the little books of popular science which he reads in his corner of the railway train, talk as if all this process of thought were antiquated; as if something had happened in the meantime which made Creation self-explanatory without the postulate of a Creator. Their cocksure implications affect him like briers that flick a man across the face without turning him aside from his direction. They tell him that matter is indestructible, not elucidating their meaning, which is that Man is incapable of destroying it; but even so he will not believe that matter has existed, for no particular reason, from all eternity; in that, stranger still, it brought itself into existence.

They write of Force with a capital F, or Energy with a capital E, as if we had somehow managed to deify those conceptions. But he knows that whereas motion is a fact that can be observed, force is a concept with which he is only acquainted through his experience as a living creature; it is a function of life, and the forces of Nature (as they are called), over which neither man nor beast exercises any control, must be functions of a Life which is outside experience itself.

They write as if Science had made the problem of existence simpler by explaining the causes of things hitherto unexplained — by showing us that disease is due to the action of microbes, or that lightning comes from the electricity in the atmosphere. But he knows that all this only puts the question a stage further back; that he is still at liberty to ask what caused the microbes, what caused the electricity. The thought of an infinite series, whether of causes or of agents, is no more attractive to him than to St. Thomas.

Of course, it is possible to avoid all these speculations with a bovine murmur of “I don’t know nothing about that.” But this is to give up the riddle, and to give it up, not because you cannot find the answer, but because you have found the answer, and have found it to be unpalatable. The lines of our experience, even in the natural world outside us, converge towards one point, presuppose a Creator who has necessary existence, a Prime Mover, a First Cause. But the created universe points to the existence not merely of an uncreated Power, but of an uncreated Mind.

This argument from the order and systems to be found in Creation is not synonymous with the argument from design; the argument from design, in the narrow sense, is a department or application of the main thesis. Design implies the adaptation of means to ends; and it used to be confidently urged that there was one end which the Creator clearly had in view, the preservation of species, and one plain proof of his purposive working, namely, the nice proportion between the instincts or endowments of the various animal species and the environment in which they had to live. The warm coats of the Arctic animals, the differences of strength, speed, and cunning which enable the hunter and the hunted to live together without the extermination of either — these would he instances in point; modern research has given us still more salient instances of the same principle, such as the protective mimicry which renders a butterfly or a nest of eggs indistinguishable from its surroundings. Was it not a Mind which had so proportioned means to ends?

The argument was a dangerous one, so stated. It took no account of the animal species which have in fact become extinct; it presupposed, also, the fixity of animal types. God’s mercy, doubtless, is over all his works, but we are in no position to apply teleological criticism to its exercise and to decide on what principle the wart-hog has survived while the dodo has become extinct. In this precise form, then, the argument from order has suffered badly.

But the argument from order, as the schoolmen conceived it, was and is a much wider and less questionable consideration. It is not merely in the adaptation of means to ends, but in the reign of law throughout the whole field of Nature, that we find evidence of a creative Intelligence. By a curious trick of human vanity, we describe a newly-discovered principle in Nature as So-and-so’s Law, Boyle’s, or Newton’s, or Tyndall’s, as if the discoverer were himself the legislator.

I am not grudging honor to the pioneers of research; I am only commenting on an oddity of phrase. Surely, when a thing is unexpectedly found, we congratulate the person who has found it, but our next question is inevitably, “Who put it there?” And, if there are laws in Nature to be discovered, it is but natural to ask the same question, “Who put them there?” If it needs a mind to discover them, did it not need a Mind to devise them? If the whole of our experience is not a phantasmagoria of unrelated facts, if water does not flow uphill, and gases do not double in volume when the pressure on them is doubled, who was it willed that the thing should be so? Not we assuredly; not Boyle, not Newton. Not blind Chance, for there is a limit to coincidence. Not “Nature”, for there is no such person; she is only an abstraction. What hypothesis is left to us except that of an ordering Mind? Instinctively we speak of a law when we find a natural principle; and have we no right to argue from a law to a Legislator?

I know that to superior persons all this will sound very naive. But it is easy to suspect simplicity in your opponent’s mind, when the simplicity really lies in the facts. There are thoughts so obvious that we are apt not to reflect upon them, so familiar that we are in danger of forgetting them.

So far we have been dealing with the evidences for God’s existence which are concerned with outward nature, not with the inner life of man. The argument from perfection adduced by the schoolmen is not the modern argument from moral perfection. The plain man would probably conceive the relations between God and man in the moral sphere with more of directness, more of concreteness. He would tell us that the voice of conscience was a voice not his own; whose then can it be, if it be not Divine?

Or he would tell us, in Kant’s vein, that the sense of moral duty is the sense of an obligation imposed upon us by a sovereignty outside ourselves — whose sovereignty, if not God’s? Or he would tell us that the sense of compunction which he feels when he has done wrong is not to be explained away as mere disappointment with himself; it carries with it the sense that he has defied a power above himself — whose power, if it be not God’s?

To each his own appeal; there is little need to dwell on this side of the argument; for probably everyone who has the least hankerings after Theism feels the force of it in one form or another. Otherwise I would ask space to argue that the scholastic form of it has a special value, as the truest both to the philosophic and to the devotional instinct.

I have made no attempt in this chapter to deal with the objections which will present themselves to minds influenced by the more intimate doubts of Idealism. I have been forced to assume, what the schoolmen assumed, and most ordinary people assume, that our thought is an instrument adequate to the cognition of objective reality.

Still less have I attempted to ,anticipate the rejoinders of the Pragmatist — who, it seems to me, above all men should wish to be a Catholic, and above all men will find it difficult to become one. I have merely indicated the course which Catholic apologetic takes in this fundamental matter, trusting that the inquirer, if his doubts begin so early in the process, will find access to more lucid and more copious expositions than mine.


The God Who Hides Himself I – Monsignor Ronald Knox

March 28, 2012

Roualt, Head of Christ, c. 1937. Rouault was born in Paris into a poor family. His mother encouraged his love for the arts, and in 1885 the fourteen-year-old Rouault embarked on an apprenticeship as a glass painter and restorer, which lasted until 1890. This early experience as a glass painter has been suggested as a likely source of the heavy black contouring and glowing colours, likened to leaded glass, which characterize Rouault's mature painting style. During his apprenticeship, he also attended evening classes at the School of Fine Arts, and in 1891, he entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the official art school of France. There he studied under Gustave Moreau and became his favorite student. Rouault's earliest works show a symbolism in the use of colour that probably reflects Moreau's influence, and when Moreau died in 1898, Rouault was nominated as the curator of the Moreau Museum in Paris. In 1907, Rouault commenced a series of paintings dedicated to courts, clowns and prostitutes. These paintings are interpreted as moral and social criticism. He became attracted to Spiritualism and the dramatic existentialism of the philosopher Jacques Maritain, who remained a close friend for the rest of his life. After that, he dedicated himself to religious subjects. Human nature was always the focus of his interest. Rouault said: "A tree against the sky possesses the same interest, the same character, the same expression as the figure of a human."

Philosophers have continually been exercised by the question whether our knowledge of God is a direct or a derived knowledge; whether the idea of God is in some way native to the mind, or whether we arrive at it through our knowledge of other things, his creatures. The mystical temperament, which has a strong influence on the outlook of Protestant theologians, is naturally disposed to claim, if the claim can in any be justified, that our knowledge of God is direct. For it is instinct of the mystic to reject, as far as possible, all interference, all mediation, between God and the soul.

The simplest, the most plausible of all these theories is Traditionalism. As a matter of observation, it is plainly true the origin from which your knowledge of God is derived, or mine, is the assurance given to us in infancy by our mothers or those who were responsible for our education. What if this should be not only the origin, but the justification of the concept? Adam, we must suppose, had in some an experimental knowledge of God’s existence. Did not he, in the strength of that knowledge, make Theists of his sons and they of theirs, and so on down the whole series of history, until at last the information came to our mothers, and through them to us? The evidence we have, in that case, for the existence of God is a tradition, perpetuated through the long course of human history, and resting in the last resort on the testimony of men who had walked with God, who had had first-hand knowledge of the facts.

Or, failing that, there is a possible refuge in Fideism [vocab: Fideism is an epistemological theory which maintains that faith is independent of reason, or that reason and faith are hostile to each other and faith is superior at arriving at particular truths (see natural theology). The word fideism comes from fides, the Latin word for faith, and literally means "faith-ism."].

After all, religion is concerned with the supernatural order, which altogether transcends ours; why should there not be a special, supernatural revelation to man which enables him to apprehend the existence of God; made, if you will, before he is yet old enough to be conscious of the fact? Is it not, perhaps, the best account we can give of this persistent human belief in a Deity, to suppose that there is a special faculty implanted in all of us at birth, but obscured in some of us by faults of training or of character, which apprehends God by a simple act, un-intellectual because it is supra-intellectual?

One philosopher at least, Descartes, would go further than this, and claim that for this purpose no supernatural revelation was needed. The thinking mind, according to his analysis, was primarily conscious of two clear and distinct ideas, itself and God. Outward things, the phenomena of sense, were only mirrored for it through the medium of its own consciousness; but the two facts of its own existence and God’s were guaranteed to it antecedently to any reasoning whatsoever.

At the very basis of all our thought lay the perception of a God who was responsible for implanting in us the ideas with which our thought is concerned; his non-existence was worse than unthinkable, it would destroy the very possibility of all knowledge. You must believe in God in order to believe in anything at all.

This was at the dawn of Idealism; but a theory not altogether dissimilar had found patronage even in the scholastic age — I mean the “Ontological proof” which is usually connected with the name of St. Anselm. The idea of God was necessarily one of supreme Perfection; it was impossible to associate the notion of any fault or defect with the idea of God. But the notion of non-existence is the notion of a fault or defect — indeed, a very considerable one. Therefore it is impossible to associate the notion of non-existence with the idea of God. Therefore it is unthinkable that God should not exist; therefore God exists.

This attempt to prove the existence of God, or to declare the proof of it unnecessary, without reference to the effects of his power which we experience in his visible creation, is a permanent temptation to the human mind. Intellects as far removed from one another as those of Anselm, Descartes, and de Bonald have undertaken it, and it is probable that they will never lack successors. Protestant thought, in our day, is much wedded not to these but to similar speculations.

Thus, you will seldom read any piece of non-Catholic apologetic without coming across some reference to man’s sense of his need for God, or man’s notion of holiness, a notion which can only be perfectly realized in God. The triplication of all such language is that it is possible to argue directly from the existence of concepts in our own mind in the existence of real objects, to which those concepts correspond.

The Catholic Church discountenances all such methods of approach to the subject; some of them, at the Vatican Council she has actually condemned. She discountenances them, at least, if and in so far as they claim to be the sole or the main argument for the existence of God. The main, if not the sole argument for the existence of God — so she holds, and has always held — is the argument which proves the Unseen from the Seen, the existence of the Creator from his visible effects in Creation.

All these efforts at the solution of the problem really depend for their plausibility on a postulate which we do not grant — namely, that it would have been impossible for the human race to infer God’s existence from his creatures. If this were true, then it might be argued that the notion of God must be an idea directly communicated to our minds. Such an argument is perfectly valid if applied to our sense of right and wrong; it must be native to the mind, because there is nothing outside ourselves which could possibly have suggested such a notion to us.

But this is a simple idea, directly entertained; whereas the idea of God is a composite idea, and the attributes which we associate with it, power, wisdom, etc., are derived from our own experience. “If there had been no God,” said Napoleon, “it would have been necessary to invent him” — at least, we may say it would have been possible to invent him. Thus the fact that the idea of God is conceived by our minds does not necessarily mean that it is inborn in us, or that it is directly communicated to us by some supernatural light.

The supposition is an unnecessary one, and now, what has it to say for itself? If it were true, as Descartes held, that the idea of God was a clear and distinct idea, like that of our own existence, why is it that there are so few fools in the world who doubt their own existence, so many who say “there is no God”?

If the existence of God was one of the first principles of all our mental process, then the contrary idea, that there is no God, should be unthinkable — but is it unthinkable? People think it every day. “But at least,” St. Anselm would retort, “it is impossible to think of an imperfect God, and therefore it is impossible to think of a non-existent God.” To which the atheist replies with some justice that, since God does not exist, it is not necessary to think about him at all. You cannot argue from the ideal to the real order of things.

The apologist is on safer ground if he leaves the arena of philosophy altogether, and maintains that the notion of God, so far from being innate in our minds, is something supernaturally implanted in them by a kind of direct revelation. That some such revelation was made to our first parents, we have no ground for disputing; but it would need a robust faith in us to accept so momentous a doctrine on the remote authority of our first parents, even if popular science would give us leave to suppose that we had any. Can we really be certain that in so many centuries of transmission the revelation has remained intact — that the tale has not lost in the telling?

On the other hand, Fideism would have us believe that such a direct revelation is made not once for all to the human race, but to each individual soul. Is it? The argument is surely one of those which admit of no refutation and produce no conviction. It is impossible to disprove the assertion that a direct revelation was made to us at a time of life from which no memories remain to us; but equally it is impossible to prove it. And if some other account can be given of the means by which the race or the individual arrives at the knowledge of God, surely this rather desperate hypothesis is best left in the limbo of mere conjecture.

I know there is a fashion amongst modern apologists to write as if man possessed a religious sense, comparable to his sense of music. This sense (so the argument runs) is most highly developed in the saint, the mystic, who is the real artist, the real connoisseur; in most men it is much less developed; in some it is hardly developed at all. Not that anyone (God forbid!) can be born absolutely tone-deaf to the airs of this heavenly music; but, through lack of development, the talent is nearly buried; there is no response, or practically no response, made by such a soul to the Divine voice within.

The spiritual man discerns spiritual things; he cannot explain to you what his experiences are, or even how he knows that they are real, any more than the musical expert can explain his emotional experiences to the mere groundling. But he knows; he has had an unmistakable experience of God’s Presence; it does not become us, the ignorant amateurs, to dispute his judgment. We can only trust to his higher instincts; and hope that we, too, perhaps, may be privileged to hear now and again some echo of the strains that ravish him.

For the life of me I could never understand how far such authors mean their metaphor to be pressed. Is it really contended that we can argue from a state of mind to an objective reality which lies behind it? If a musical enthusiast, after listening to some rare but gay piece, should tell me that as he listened he could actually see elves and gnomes dancing before his eyes, I should be perfectly prepared to reverence both his own superior sensitiveness to musical impressions, and the subtle power of the art which could evoke such an imaginative experience.

I should not suppose that elves or gnomes had been present, unseen to myself. And I confess that if I lacked the sense of religion quite so thoroughly as I lack that of music, the disclosures of the mystic would leave me in very much the same position. I might feel the mystic to be of a spiritual calibre infinitely superior to my own; I might bestow my admiration on those methods of contemplative prayer which enabled him to achieve his sense of a Divine Presence, his sense of Union. But I should not for that reason be inclined to believe in the objective existence of God, his Angels, or his Saints, if I did not share those beliefs already.

I do not know if I am wholly removed from the generality of mankind in holding such sentiments; but this type of’ argument seems to me both logically unsound and theologically perilous. And the nerve of the fallacy lies, I think, in the use of the word “experience”. When we are asked to let ourselves be guided by the experiences of another in matters of common human importance, we acquiesce (if we do acquiesce) because the experiences in question are such as might have fallen to our lot instead of his; we have eyes, ears, and the other senses corresponding to his. And we can take the measure of his faculties from our own; if he says he saw a thing, we can relate that to our own experience of sight; if he says he heard a thing, we can relate it to our own sense of hearing.

But if a man talks to us of “experiences” in which the faculties of outward sensation played no part, we are no longer in a position to sample those experiences for ourselves by proxy; we have no apparatus for sharing them with him. Where an experience of the outward senses is concerned, we are ready, from the analogy of our own experience, to believe that there was “something there”. But when the alleged experience has been apprehended through the use of spiritual faculties which we either do not possess or do not use, our confidence in the “something there” necessarily evaporates. Which is, I suppose, why the Church tells us that a private revelation may be such as to demand credence from the soul which experiences it, but can never, of itself, demand credence from other people.

Nevertheless the moderns, in their desire for an easy short cut to the proof of God’s existence, are learning to rest more and more weight on this tenuous argument — as I think, fatally. In the same way, they press for more than it is worth the argument, impressive enough in itself, that, when all is said and done, most people do believe in God. Buddhism, Hinduism, paganism have at least theologies of their own; Jewry and Islam acknowledge, no less than Christendom, one God who is both transcendent and omnipotent. In England itself, for all the decline of official Christianity,  how much is there of positive atheism?

Nor is the appeal to history less impressive; with a thousand strange vagaries of presentation, humanity has nearly always, nearly everywhere, attested its belief in the existence of unseen Powers; atheism nearly always, nearly everywhere, has been the reaction of a minority, a protest defying the popular instinct. Must there not, argues the apologist, be something in this popular certainty? Have we not been taught to remember that there is no smoke without fire?

We can hardly account for this vast conspiracy of mankind, determined to bow down before some august Power, conceived as intelligent and present to the worshipper; we can hardly account for the satisfaction of man’s highest instincts through such commerce with the Unseen, except on the supposition (which, after all, cannot be disproved) that the God so worshipped under a thousand forms and in a thousand manners does really exist.

This contention, put in its most naked form, means that each of us ought to believe in God because all the others do — an arrangement not differing much in principle from the economics of that famous country, whose inhabitants lived by taking in one another’s washing. Once more we must insist, you cannot argue from a mere state of mind to an objective reality which that state of mind appears to presuppose. If indeed there were no way of accounting for this strange idea having got into so many people’s heads, then the mere fact of its prevalence might make us suspect that there was something in it. [to be continued…]


Sin and Forgiveness — Ronald Knox

February 9, 2012

Can the philosophy of materialism explain the existence of intelligence? Bertrand Russell believes it can: given the vastness and complexity of the universe, it is probable that among the various combinations you will have one or two that produce intelligent organisms. This, for Knox obfuscates the question: "If the police were to discover a human body in Mr. Russell's Saratoga trunk, he would not be able to satisfy them with the explanation that, among all the innumerable articles of luggage in the world, it is only natural that there should be some few which are large enough to contain a body. They would want to know how it got there." By airily talking of hypothetical possibilities in a vast universe, Russell is avoiding the question of how in fact our material world has produced the spiritual reality of intellect. The existence of something different from the material world requires a cause that is other than material, and points to a Mind which is the source of our human ability to reason.

Sin is one of those tiresome words that have a whole lot of different meanings, nearly the same but not quite the same. Shame is a word like that, and so is progress, and so is democracy. A word is used in one sense by the general public, very often, but the expert will confuse the issues by using it in a lot of other senses as well. Somebody advertises a lecture about cats, and all the old ladies in North Oxford flock to it so as to find the proper way to treat their cats, and then they find the lecture is nearly all about lions and tigers and leopards. And when they complain to the lecturer, he smiles in a superior way and says, “Yes, but I didn’t mean domestic cats.”

So it is if you read a theological treatise about sin; it starts at once by saying, “There are two kinds of sin, original and actual”; and you have to wade through pages and pages about original sin (not a lively subject) before you get on to what you mean by sin, which is actual sin; the sort of sin one tries to avoid, and commits, and repents of, and wants to be forgiven for. It would save a deal of trouble if we all agreed to call Original Sin Original Guilt. Because sin, in the mind of the common man, is something which he commits himself, whereas guilt is something he may get involved in through no fault of his own; all the German people were involved in war guilt in a sense, and they all had to suffer for it. So let’s leave Original Guilt on one side, the handicap, the disability, which we have inherited through no fault of our own from our first parents, and get on to sin.

The next thing your theologian says is, “Oh, you wanted to know about actual sin, did you? You should have made that clear. Well, actual sins — I don’t mind telling you that they are divided into material sins and formal sins.”And there you are at cross purposes again; because of course material sin isn’t what you and I mean by sin. If you wake up in the night and your watch says five minutes to twelve and you eat a slice of cake and go to Communion next morning and then find that your watch was really an hour slow, that is a material sin, because the Church tells you to fast from midnight.

But it isn’t a formal sin; in other words, it isn’t what you and I mean by sin. You are under no kind of obligation to mention it when you go to Confession, though you may prefer to do so on the ground that even material sins ought to be submitted to the Church’s judgment. (That’s another curious point about language; the ordinary Englishman uses the word “material” when he thinks a thing is very important, “a material consideration”; he uses the word “formal” when he thinks a thing is quite unimportant, “the Society passed a formal resolution”. But when you go out to tea with the theologians, you must use the words exactly the other way round.)

Well, I want to play at being a theologian for a moment and say a very little about material sins. This first: if you read the Old Testament you must keep it clearly in mind that material sins, under the Old Law, counted as sins. Saul takes a vow that no soldier in his army shall eat food till night-fall; Jonathan, who hasn’t heard of it, eats a mouthful of wild honey, and everything starts going wrong. The edge of your cloak touched a dead body without your knowing it, and you were nevertheless unclean, you might incur Divine punishment for it. I suppose Almighty God set about training the Chosen Race by a very slow and patient process; outward obedience to a set of rules was all they could understand at first of what it meant to obey God’s will. It was only later on that the prophets taught them it wasn’t much use sacrificing bullocks and things if you were oppressing the widow and orphan on the side.

And here is another point about material sins which is of some importance. It is a maxim of English jurisprudence that “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” The Church takes the opposite point of view; if you do the wrong thing under the honest impression that you are doing the right thing, you do not offend God, you earn his approval. When the Emperor Otho committed suicide, because he saw no hope of peace for his country unless he were got out of the way, he did the wrong thing; it is wrong to commit suicide.

But I think it is fairly obvious that he thought it was the right thing, and if the Emperor Otho went to hell, I am quite certain it was not for that. With this in mind, we can all afford to cheer up a bit about the poor pagans. But what about us Christians, us Catholics? What judgment is going to be passed on us if we do the wrong thing because we did not know our stuff? For instance, suppose you didn’t go to Mass on New Year’s day, and that afternoon somebody mentioned it was a day of obligation. “Gosh”, you said, “I never knew that!” Yes, but how genuine was the surprise? Had you, on New Year’s eve, a kind of feeling that it might be a day of obligation tomorrow, and did you think of ringing up somebody and finding out, and then. . . well, decided not to because it would be rather a bore if it was? That would be affected ignorance, and it does not excuse. It wasn’t that; you really hadn’t the least idea?

Good; but the further question arises whether you had any right not to have the least idea. If you are so little instructed in your duties as a Catholic, oughtn’t you perhaps to be taking steps to get better instructed? There is such a thing, you see, as crass ignorance; a rude name by which the moralists imply that if you didn’t know you ought to have. More probably you forgot to think about it at all; I don’t know what the moralist would call that; my own name for it would be ignorantia undergraduatorum, because it seemed almost universal when I was chaplain.

So we can stop bothering about original sin, and material sin, and go on to discuss sin, by which we mean that men or women, probably ourselves, knowing what they are about, choose the evil and refuse the good. How that is possible, remains a headache for the philosophers. Because after all the good is by definition that at which man naturally aims; and it is very difficult to see how he misses his aim, unless it were from want of proper information, and that would land us right back in material sin, just when we thought we had got rid of it.

Those of you who are reading Greats, if anybody does read Greats nowadays, have probably been introduced to Aristotle’s speculations on the subject, and made to write an essay on whether the doctrine of the practical syllogism solves the problem of the moral conflict. He never seems to be able to make up his mind whether all wrong action is not really a kind of ignorance.

But it is no good telling us that we cannot choose the evil. We are like the drunk man on the edge of the pavement, when they told him he couldn’t sit there all night, and he replied, “You don’t know my c’pash’ties.” Mass observation, conducted over a number of centuries, proves that man does deliberately choose evil; and we have only to examine our own behavior to find that it is true; we can distinguish, in the sorry record of our past failures, which of them were really due to ignorance, which of them to a momentary obfuscation of the mind, and which of them to downright cussedness.

Not that we ever choose the evil as such. Evil as such is something negative, and cannot, therefore, exercise any spell over the human mind. When we sin, we are always aiming at something which is in itself good; but it is the wrong good in that particular context. It is a good thing to drink a glass of wine; as St Thomas says, “If a man deliberately abstains from wine to such an extent that he does serious harm to his nature, he will not be free from blame.” But if the glass of wine happens to be the fifteenth you have taken that evening, it is the wrong good in that particular context.

Sometimes indeed people — undergraduates especially — will use careless language which seems to imply that they mean to choose evil for its own sake. They will say, for instance, “Let’s go and get drunk.” But they don’t mean that; they mean “Let us go and get rid of our inhibitions”, which is a good idea as far as it goes. No, man can’t choose evil for itself; but in some mysterious way man, endowed with free will and then fallen, can and does choose the lesser good instead of the greater, with a kind of moral near-sightedness which is not ignorance, and therefore is not an excuse.

Not, that is to say, a full excuse; sometimes it is a partial excuse. And that brings us on to the two kinds of sin there really are; you really do sit up and begin to take notice when I tell you that there is a distinction between mortal and venial sins. Even that is not a self-evident proposition. The theologian, Baius, that curious sixteenth-century figure who seemed to spend all his life trying to sell the pass to the Protestants, maintained that all sins of their own nature were mortal sins, and merited damnation. You will be glad to hear that he was condemned.

There are sins of inadvertence; you may act knowing what you are doing, but not thinking what you are doing. The sudden provocation is too much for you, and you hit out. And again, there are sins too trivial in their scope to be counted in any serious reckoning. The man who takes a sheet of notepaper from the J.C.R. is performing just the same kind of action as the man who takes a priceless folio from the Bodleian. But, instinctively, you feel that there is something unhealthy about his mental balance if he comes rushing round to confession. Put venial sins on the same level as mortal sins, and it will not be long before you adopt views about man’s fallen nature which will make nonsense of the whole subject we are discussing, Sin and Forgiveness.

But there are mortal sins. Four hundred years ago, when the Reformation movement had got going, it was difficult to persuade people that any sins were venial; now, it is difficult to persuade them that any sins are mortal. We have all got so accustomed to a mental atmosphere in which everything is graded; one thing differs from another in degree, rather than in kind. There is no absolute standard about our human criticisms, no black and white, only shades of grey. There is no absolute justice about our human quarrels; it is always six query plus on one side and six query minus on the other. We are like travelers over a long tract of flat country, who are not prepared to see a sudden precipice gaping at their feet.

But that, you see, is the Christian religion all over; always these sharp antitheses, heaven and hell, God’s smile or God’s frown; you are in the state of grace or out of it, not mid-way between. After all, there is one nasty bump waiting for all of us, death; there are no shades or gradations about that. And why should we assume that the world which lies on the other side of death is a replica of ours?

There’s another reason which disinclines us to believe in mortal sin; we are so ready to make psychological excuses. Is it possible, we ask, for a man to adopt an attitude of conscious, deliberate revolt against his Creator without something a little wrong somewhere, some slight kink? And with that, mortal sin becomes venial again…. Well, I don’t say that this instinct of ours is to be despised. Certainly, if we are sitting in judgment upon the actions of other people, we should be ready to make allowances.

The late Canon Barry used to say that it took a Frenchman to commit a mortal sin. He was rather fond of saying not quite the ordinary thing, was Canon Barry; but you saw what he meant. With our own sins, if we are in real doubt whether they were mortal or venial, we must make a prudent judgment about them, as honest and objective as we can make it; going to Communion or not going will depend on that. But in confession, as long as the sin is mentioned, I don’t know that anything is gained by telling the priest whether it was or wasn’t a mortal sin; let him ask questions if he wants to.

And then, having carefully divided up our sins into venial sins, those which can be pardoned, and mortal sins, which presumably cannot be pardoned, we proceed to tell Almighty God that we hope, by the merits of Jesus Christ, for the pardon of all our sins. Once more we are plunged in an atmosphere of mystery. The simplest way to put it, perhaps, is this. If you think of your sin as a personal affront offered to a personal God, the difficulty is to see why he doesn’t forgive it at once, as soon as it is committed. After all, he tells us to forgive our enemies; why shouldn’t he forgive his?

Here lie I, Martin Elginbrodd;
Have mercy on my soul, Lord God,
 As I would do, gin I were God
And thou wert Martin Elginbrodd.

If, on the other hand, you think of your sin as a breach of the eternal order of things, an upsetting of the balance of eternal Justice, how can God forgive that? He is himself eternal Justice; is he not, then, false to his own nature if he agrees to treat the act irrevocably done as if it had never happened? You and I can forgo our right to get satisfaction out of an enemy, because the right is something external to ourselves. But the right God has to punish us is a part of himself, how, without ceasing to be God, can he forgo it?

There is an easy answer we are inclined to suggest at that point, but it’s one we mustn’t make. We are inclined to say, “Surely that was the whole point of the Atonement! It was because God could not forgive us unless we made adequate amends for our fault that Jesus Christ came to make amends for us. If there had been any other terms on which he could grant us forgiveness, surely he wouldn’t have had recourse to so strange an expedient as that!”

But the theologians won’t let you say that. Whenever you think you have got a really good answer to a theological difficulty, the theologians say, “No, that’s where you’re wrong” It wasn’t absolutely necessary for our Lord to die; it wasn’t even necessary for him to come to earth. Almighty God could have consented, if he had wished it, to accept the sacrifice of some less worthy victim; he could have consented, if he had wished it, to forgive us our sins without demanding that any amends should be made for them at all. But he decreed that satisfaction should be made in this way; and since it has been, it is quite certain that the forgiveness to which you and I look forward is forgiveness earned on our behalf by our Blessed Lord, when he died on the Cross…. But the inner nature of the divine pardon is still a mystery.

There remains the question, how you and I are to avail ourselves of this gift of pardon, freely offered. As we know, we have to be sorry for our sins. Not necessarily in the sense of feeling sorry, because our feelings are not sufficiently within our own control. Sorrow for our sins is a matter of the will, not of the affections, and what is required of us is that we should unite our wills, although it be by an act which seems to awake no echo in the sensitive part of us, with the will of God. Nor is it expected of us, that we should feel certain we shall not fall into the same sins again. We know the weakness of our natures, and often the best we can do is to throw ourselves on God’s mercy with the prayer that his grace will enable us to avoid sin thenceforward.

We are also bound to go to confession, if we have reason to suspect that we are in mortal sin. And here, as you know, there is a distinction to be made; the distinction between perfect and imperfect contrition. Imperfect contrition, or attrition, may be dictated to us only by the fear of God, not by the love of him; that is sufficient motive if it is accompanied by actual confession to a priest.

Perfect contrition, which is dictated to us by the love of God, wins us the forgiveness of our sins there and then, as long as it is accompanied by the resolve to go to confession at the earliest possible opportunity. But it is only in rare circumstances that we are encouraged to go to Communion without sacramental confession, if we have committed a mortal sin. We cannot be certain enough, being what we are, of our own dispositions. And, as we know, contrition must be accompanied by the desire to put things right. We must mean to make restitution, if we have defrauded people of their money or their good name; we must mean to avoid the occasions of sin, as far as the way lies clear to us. If in fact those resolves afterwards break down, we nevertheless have been in a state of grace at the time when the resolves were made. But the duty of restitution doesn’t disappear, and our next confession, if it is to be valid, must be accompanied by a new resolve. We must not be, consciously and deliberately, holding something back from God.

One of the most perfectly constructed lines in English poetry is, “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” How perfect is the balance of those words, how rich the sense of them! They enshrine two of the greatest mysteries which, as Christians, we are bound to accept. The doctrine, I mean, that man, being what he is, can rebel against God; and the doctrine that God, being what he is, can forgive man.


Introducing Ronald Knox

February 8, 2012

Monsignor Ronald Knox

A reminiscence by a colleague (?), the kind of prose combining both affection and an easy accuracy of portrayal that makes us all linger a bit.


I am delighted to introduce Ronald Knox to those who do not know him. All my adult life he has been a private pleasure, a delight expected and delivered, a literary and higher satisfaction on which to reflect and be pleased.

He is a happy part of the intellectual and esthetic life of so many who love fine English prose; who rejoice in the joie de vivre that bursts suddenly from this hooded, diffident person; who discern the apostolic roots of a devotional life that steadied his easily injured person. His uncommon literary gifts, restricted social instincts, and unlimited imagination, his bouts with self-doubt and dejection were all carried nicely by his deep trust in Christ and the dignity of an honorable priest.

Ronald Arbuthnott Knox (1888-1957), son and grandson of evangelical Anglican bishops — true believers — was born into a family of uncommon brightness and scholarly gifts. His childhood was filled with profound goodness and enlivening opportunities to learn and imagine, memorize the best, and wrestle with intellectual puzzles. His niece wrote, “As for Ronnie, the little boy who had been asked at four years old what he liked doing and had replied, `I think all day, and at night I think about the past,’ was already a natural philosopher”[Penelope Fitzgerald, The Knox Brothers (London: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1977]. At six he wrote letters salted with Greek and Latin words. He attended Eton and Balliol College, by contemporary estimate the finest schools in England in the attention they gave to students.

These were his advantages, and not much was lost. But he did not live in secure circumstances. As a small boy he lost his mother; he lived in no great homes. His family had not enough money for his schools; he had to win scholarships to each. All his life he had to be careful of money, and he worked hard, young and old, not to burden anyone.

From childhood he loved Church life and normal religious practice, and long before he ever saw a ritual service, he came to love ritual because he felt every object associated with worship was sacred. As two brothers slipped into agnosticism, Ronald taught himself sharp distinctions that served him well. Early he distinguished ritual, theology, and faith as exercises of very different value. An irredeemable romantic in religious matters (he loved Bruges as Catholic and Robert Hugh Benson’s novels), he rejoiced in a skeptical mind ever demanding clear, supported truth. He was wary of theological vagueness and intellectual shortcuts. His biographer, Evelyn Waugh, wrote:

Such temptations against the Faith as he suffered — and he was near despair in the year before his reception into the Catholic Church — were total. Either the whole deposit of Faith was divinely inspired and protected and developed under divine guidance, or it was false. He never saw it, as did many of the contemporaries with whom he now took issue, as the agglomeration of history and fable, of hints and shadows of Truth, of vestigial philosophic notions and dark superstitions from which anyone could pick at will whatever he found agreeable, and discard the rest. He was for some years uncertain where he could find the authority which guarded and administered the Faith, but he always recognized it as a single, indivisible world. [Evelyn Waugh, Ronald Knox (London: Chapman Hall, 1959)]

Nor did relaxing intellectually into the Faith diminish his skeptical approach to invention in Catholic doctrine and emotion-tinged theological conclusions. This was, of course, not the skepticism unbelievers proclaim but the mind of a clear-headed believer wanting to trust only purest apostolic teaching, and the longing of a scholar for clear, sure conclusions as a base for further reflection. Many other “truths” of religion he thought dangerous mush. One of his earliest pieces as an Anglo-Catholic was the often reprinted Absolute and Abitofhell (in the style of Dryden), in which he lampooned the waffling Anglican hierarchy.

As an Anglican, early on, he saw that the first danger to the Church was not Protestantism, as most Anglo-Catholics thought, but modernism. Oddly, too, for an early ritualist, he considered the externals and consolations of religion very minor factors in spirituality. His sound thinking in this kept his sharp esthetic sense well grounded and also nicely liberated. He groaned inwardly at the wording of Catholic hymns and official prayers. But he never injured the feelings of those who profited from those prayers.

Was it perhaps his demanding mind in limning the final verities that allowed him to abandon himself to comic devices in lectures and wild charades? He was so entertaining and delightful to high school girls that they were known to race home so as not to miss his talks. At Oxford he completed a lecture, offering his conclusions muffled in a gas mask.

One piece of doggerel will do:

We love the pitch-pine pews
On which our coat-tails bend,
Designed to make us muse
Upon our latter end.
[Evelyn Waugh, Ronald Knox (London: Chapman Hall, 1959]

After a long, painful wrestling with himself and grace and disbelief altogether, he submitted, exhausted and happy, to the Catholic Church on September 22, 1917.

He was ordained a Catholic priest on October 5, 1919.

It was no easy business for him. He enjoyed the finest education England had to offer, was well known as an Anglo-Catholic of lively positions and the author of very entertaining books, and was named the “wittiest young man in England” (Daily Mail’s Choice, 1924). As he entered the Catholic Church and the priesthood, there were awkwardnesses and a few painful dislocations. He served as a master at Saint Edmund’s Preparatory School and Seminary (1919-26) and as chaplain at Oxford (1926-39).

Although his personality and learning, his hold on Christian doctrine and reality, his goodness and wit made a profound impression on many young people — mostly as they looked back — he knew he was painfully unsuited to the routine of those posts. He wrote and preached to larger congregations during his vacations, but he knew his literary work, of which so much was expected, was reduced to a thin stream of pleasant secondary works. (The exception was his brilliant Let Dons Delight, which appeared at the end of his Oxford chaplaincy.) At Saint Edmund’s and Oxford we see the deeper “hidden stream” of his life: an honorable priest and self-denying Christian who had promised obedience to the Church and her work. [The Hidden Stream was the title of a series of his lectures in which he developed an analogy between a stream now hidden under Oxford and the hidden sustaining Catholic Traditions of English Christianity.]

What is interesting is that he was ordained on his own “patrimony” (nonexistent), promising in effect to support himself and not to expect any pension. He supported himself largely by writing and preaching. Because of that circumstance, he could have removed himself from those two posts, but he accepted them for twenty years because the Church in the person of her hierarchy asked him to serve in them.

From 1939 to the last years of his life, he enjoyed chaplaincies in two accommodating English Catholic homes where he was a paying guest. In the first he was swallowed up in a girls’ high school fleeing the bombing of London. He responded with the incisive and charming Slow Motion books for the girls on the Mass, Creed, and Gospels. They increase in popularity in our day.

But his two major works were also accomplished in that period. Enthusiasm (begun in 1919 and published in 1950) is his scholarly and enchanting exposition of the Christian religion, gone off the track of sound doctrine and sacramental life, turning into privately inspired and sometimes hilarious inventions. Serious students of Christianity cannot be without Enthusiasm. It is a truly insightful, sympathetic, and cool-eyed study of amazing Christians.

And he also wrote his beautiful, graceful, and literarily inspired translation of the Bible during this period (1939-55). The Bible, on which people make such varied demands for clarity and mystery, mellifluousness and declarability, devotion and nostalgia, doctrine and more, cannot satisfy a majority through any one translation. But, I dare say, if contemporary Christians love both a clear, understandable, easily comprehended, reliable translation of the New Testament and the graces of a master’s fine rhythmic prose, they need to pray for a handsome reprinting of Ronald Knox’s translation. It is a refuge from the bathos and awkwardness of many contemporary translations and from the taunting of believers by citing the “brothers and sisters of Christ.” The Old Testament, touched by Monsignor Knox with a note of archaism, divides admirers into those who love it and those who wished he had not added even a slight archaic shade to the clarity and style that were his genius.

His collection of talks, sermons, and letters constitutes a major part of his published works. They created a special genre of his thinking and style. Most of his sermons were carefully crafted conversations that he read in the pulpit, but somehow he made them seem like easy dinner conversation. It was an uncommon style for sermons, but it will surely last. Some of his most thoughtful and evocative sermons were obituaries of the great figures he had known. Many were Newmanesque, as he gently exposed the heart and aspirations of a subject.

This charming don also left us a delicious menu of delightful communications. In Essays in Satire he punctured the pretentions of the higher critics of the Bible through a study of Sherlock Holmes and a piece that “proved” Queen Victoria wrote In Memoriam. He reveled in the absurdities of early Anglican ecumenism and in much else to delight honest men and women who enjoy the human comedy in religious and scholarly life.

Let Dons Delight was recognized immediately as the work of a master of English styles and of the nuances of English politics and theology. It is a work of subtle wit and good fun: conversations in an Oxford common room, every fifty years, from the Armada to our own time. It is, of course, full of wisdoms and pathos of a deeper sort. It is, for Catholics, a sign of hope in education wherever it is appreciated or understood.

Ronald Knox died a good Christian and loyal priest. Fame meant little to him; he suffered a dreadful fear that he might not have done enough with what the Lord had given him. We, his heirs of lesser gifts, may think he was more concerned than he need have been. But let us do what he wanted and pray for him in gratitude for the treasures of perception, belief, and easy wit that he gave us — his own happy traditio of Catholic Faith and good fun.

Monsignor Eugene V. Clark, Ph.D.
Church of Saint Agnes, New York City


I Believe In The Resurrection Of The Body, And The Life Everlasting — Fr. Ronald Knox

January 19, 2012

Fr. Ronald Knox, the famous Catholic convert and apologist who was a major figure in the English Catholic Literary Revival during the first half of the twentieth century.

From his classic, The Creed in Slow Motion.


I WAS TALKING TO YOU LAST SUNDAY, if you remember, about sitting in the confessional on Saturday evenings, and how it’s liable to give you pins and needles. And for fear you should think that that is a very heroic sacrifice on my part, let me recall to your memory the life of that very nice Saint, St. John Vianney, the Cur of Ars. I should have liked to give you a whole sermon about him, but I expect you know something about him already; if you want to know what he looked like, you’ve only got to go to the pigsties in the old stables, and you will find him there on a window-sill, because he is supposed to be rather good at looking after the health of farm animals. And if you think he would mind being in the pigsty, it shows you know very little about the Cure d’Ars.

He used to spend about fourteen hours every day in the confessional. He came out for his lunch, which consisted of one or two potatoes, and he knew all his people and loved all his people and spent a lot of time visiting them, but, as I say, for fourteen hours every day he sat in the confessional, because penitents used to come to him from all over the world and queue up for absolution. He went to bed for three or four hours at night, but it didn’t do him much good, because the devil, whom he used to call the grappin (which I think means the toasting-fork) used to come and pull him out of bed nearly every night, in the hope of persuading him to live differently.

However, he went on living like that very happily till he was over seventy. And one day, talking to a friend, he said, “I know one old man who would look rather a fool if there were no future life “. Then he checked himself, and said, “Although, as a matter of fact, it is such an honor to serve God, that we ought to be proud and glad to do it, even if he gave us no reward at all at the end of it “.

Well, now we’ve got to the end of the Credo and we’ve got to think of our lives, and the reward we are going to get perhaps. When God put man in an earthly paradise, and man made a mess of it, he could perfectly well have arranged, if you come to think of it, that Adam and Eve shouldn’t have any children. And if they hadn’t, one would be disposed to think, the situation would have been very neatly cleared up. Adam and Eve might have been allowed to spend a longish and fairly comfortable life, and then died, and been annihilated at death; or some kind of Limbo could have been invented, in which they could have lived on eternally as a pair of curiosities.

But God, for some reason, didn’t want to do that; he wanted mankind to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and, when they died, to fill heaven. He was determined to have a lot of human beings about in heaven, sharing his happiness. That’s curious, if you like. Of course, you may think it’s jolly to live in a crowd; and perhaps you rather pity the poor nuns when the holidays come and they are left all alone by themselves.. . . Well, you know, Aldenham isn’t too bad in the holidays. Anyhow, God wanted to have human beings about in heaven; and he left us with our free will, so that we could make use of the grace which he gives us and go to heaven if we did. If we didn’t, that is the most mysterious thing of all, and a thing I suppose we shall never understand in this life, that God has left human beings free to go to hell, if they want to. He lets us have our way, like an indulgent Father, and if we insist on sending ourselves to hell, he allows us to do it.

There are plenty of difficulties about this last article in the Credo. We are talking about hell as well as heaven, when we say we believe in the resurrection of the body. Why it is that the lost souls in hell have to have their bodies restored to them after the general judgment is not immediately obvious. It isn’t so that hell can hurt more; because the souls in hell do suffer, even before the general judgment, bodily pain.

You see, all the pain which we feel in our bodies has got to get through to us, if it’s to hurt. There’s no harm in your tooth aching, if that were all. The trouble is that You have got a toothache. And these sensations of pain which we derive, on earth, through the body, are felt, now, by the souls in hell, although they have at present no bodies to feel them with; the process, somehow, is short-circuited. And the pains of hell go on forever. The lost souls live in an eternal, changeless moment of despair.

All that, as I say, is a thing which I don’t suppose we shall ever understand in this life. There’s a story of an Irishman who had doubts about hell, and the priest said to him, “Well, look at it this way, Pat; if there’s no hell, where’s Cromwell?” And he said, “Ah, your Reverence, I hadn’t thought of that “. But somehow I don’t know that even that makes it clear. All you can say is that if you’re going to have a faith you have got to believe what it tells you, the uncomfortable parts as well as the comfortable ones.

However, it isn’t necessary to be thinking about the uncomfortable parts all the time; and as we are getting to the end of the Credo and the end of the term let’s try and finish up with a pleasant taste in our mouths. Let’s pretend, you and I, that we are going to heaven. Mind you, I don’t say that you are, still less that I am; but there’s no harm in pretending. Even so, what are we going to make of this odd clause, “the resurrection of the body”?

First, let’s notice that for some reason the Credo we say is a mistranslation of the Latin. The Credo which is said by the universal Church hasn’t got Corporis Resurrectionem, the resurrection of the body, as its last clause but one. Its last clause but one is CARNIS Resurrectionem, the Resurrection of the Flesh. And the flesh, in theological language (which comes from the Hebrew), means a great deal more than the body.

It means the whole of your human nature, gifts of mind as well as of body, so long as they are natural, not supernatural, gifts. However, that takes us into complicated questions of theology; so let’s just think about our bodies rising again, as they certainly will when the general judgment comes. Two common-sense questions naturally suggest themselves. One is, “How will it be possible for my body to rejoin my soul? Nothing will be left of my body by then, except a skeleton, if that “.

Do you know a book of poems called The Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers? Rather good, I think. In one of them Montrose, the Cavalier general who was killed by those very unpleasant people, the Covenanters, is made to say, “Go, nail my head to yonder tower, Give every town a limb; The God who made will gather them, I go from you to him “. That, in itself, seems rather a lot to hope for. But what about people who have been burnt in a fire; how are all their ashes going to be seccotined [vocab: A trade-name of a cement used to unite surfaces of paper, cloth, leather, etc] together again? And I think I’m right in saying that St. Thomas Aquinas, who always liked to allow for everything, discussed the question, What was going to happen about people who were eaten by cannibals? Because you might have a missionary saying, “Here, that’s my big toe “, and a cannibal saying, “No, it’s not, it’s part of my stomach “.

Well, that isn’t really as difficult a difficulty as it sounds. You see, it’s a mistake to think of one’s body as made up simply of so many bits of pink stuff. Your body is a living thing, which goes on changing all the time, as living things do. I think the scientific people tell us that every year every part of one’s body is made up of different pieces of stuff compared with last year. I’ve still got a scar where I had an operation in the year 1906. The pieces of skin round that scar have changed thirty-seven times since then, but it’s still there, which shows that I’ve still got the same body. The same body, though not made up of the same bits of skin; it isn’t going to be difficult for us, then, to get back the same body in the next world, without going round looking for lost bits and pieces. If you come to think of it, your finger-nails aren’t the same finger-nails, in a sense, as they were when the war started, because you’ve cut them a good many times since then, at least, I hope you have. But they are still your finger-nails. We shan’t want to collect, when the general judgment comes, every single piece of stuff in the world that has once been our finger-nails; if we did, we should find ourselves in heaven with finger-nails about a mile long. No, God can give us back our bodies without bothering about all the pieces of skin and hair that once belonged to them.

And there’s a third question that obviously suggests itself, about heaven. “What shall we want bodies for?” Think of the Saints in heaven now; our Lady’s body, as we know, was taken up to heaven when she died, but that isn’t true of St. Peter or St. Paul or any of the other Saints. Well, you can’t imagine St. Peter, now, in heaven, complaining that he finds it rather uncomfortable not having a body. And therefore, if people can get on quite, comfortably without their bodies till the general judgment, why can’t they get on quite comfortably without their bodies after the general judgment?

The answer to that, I think, is that body and soul were made for one another, and therefore both of them are in an unnatural state when you divide them, and demand to be reunited. It isn’t that the soul is unhappy without the body; it can express itself otherwise, in heaven. But the body, which has been our companion all through our earthly pilgrimage, must not be permanently left out in the cold; that wouldn’t be right. It, too, has its passport to eternity.

Not that, in heaven, our bodies will be in the same state as here. St. Paul tells us that our heavenly body won’t be any more like our earthly body than the harvest which you cut in the summer is like the miserable little wizened seeds which you sowed in the late autumn. Our bodies, in heaven, will be etherealized; they will have none of the disabilities which they had on earth; there will be no getting pins and needles in heaven. Our bodies, here, are rather a nuisance in some ways, aren’t they? Always running into things, or even into people. Our bodies in heaven, the theologians tell us, will offer no resistance to the touch, won’t be solid. And another awkward thing about our bodies here is that they can’t get about quick enough; we haven’t quite finished drying them when somebody shouts “Last bell!” and we know that they ought to be in the refectory. That will be all right in heaven; we don’t have the kind of body which takes time in moving from place to place. We shan’t have bodily needs, either, which we have to satisfy, by eating and drinking, for example. Perhaps you don’t regard that as very good news, but it’s all right really. I’m sure, before now, you must have been late for meals because you were so excited about a game you were playing or a book you were reading? Well, if you like to put it that way, heaven means spending eternity in a state of such excitement that we shall be eternally late for our meals.

Some things the theologians tell us about heaven are just guess-work, and don’t pretend to be more than guess-work. I think they say we shall all be thirty-three years of age, because that is the perfect time of life; I dare say it’s true, but it’s not in the Credo. They also tell us we shall all be good-looking; which is good news for some of us, and makes us wonder how our friends are going to recognize us; but that again isn’t in the Credo. What I think you can say with perfect confidence, although as far as I know it isn’t laid down officially anywhere, is that we shall know one another, and that part of our happiness in heaven will be due to finding ourselves re united with those we love. We shall be united, too, with the Saints who prayed for us while we were on earth; we shall be united by a love we never dreamt of to our Lord himself.

And at the same time, when we get to heaven, if we get to heaven, we shall realize that the Credo was true, instead of just going on believing it was true. We shall be conscious of God as our Father; we shall recognize that everything which happened on earth was part of an almighty design. We shall find it quite natural that there should be three Persons in the Godhead, and that the second Person should be both God and man; God’s only Son, our Lord, the visible object, now, of our worship, thanking us for all the little services we did for him.

We shall have no difficulty in seeing that our Blessed Lady became his Mother and yet remained a Virgin. And although pain and suffering will then be only a distant memory of the past, no part any longer of our daily experience, we shall be able to look into and understand the sufferings which our Lord underwent when he was crucified by Pontius Pilate, all those billions and billions of years ago; we shall understand those sufferings, and take, from them, the measure of his love. We shall look down into the twilight world of Limbo, where once the patriarchs were; quite empty, now, only a record of the past; and the strange old people we used to see in stained-glass windows will be real people to us then; brought to light when our Lord descended into hell.

The Resurrection will not merely be something that seems quite natural; we shall be conscious of it at every instant as the very condition of our being; for we, too, shall have become part of that Risen Life which our Lord brought back with him from the tomb. We shall see him, ascended, sitting at the right hand of his Father, thank him for the merciful judgments he passed on us, living and dead. We shall feel the presence of the Holy Spirit within us; we shall know the Church for Christ’s glorious Bride; we shall be in conscious communion with all the Saints; our sins, instead of looking black, will be rose-hued, like clouds at sunset, with the grace of final forgiveness. We shall be risen, soul and body; soul and body pulsing at every moment with the energies of an everlasting life.


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