Archive for June, 2011

June 30, 2011

charged with the task of visiting other cities

The word “theory” comes from the ancient Greek word theorein, meaning “to see.”

…Over time, it came to describe a special and intensified form of “seeing” in the Greek world. Certain designated city officials— theoroi—were charged with the task of visiting other cities, to “see” events such as religious or theatrical or athletic festivals, and to return to their home city, where they would then give an account of what they had seen. To “theorize” was to take part in a sacred journey, an encounter with the “other” in which the theorist would attempt to comprehend, assess, compare, and then, in the idiom of his own city, explain what had been seen to his fellow citizens. This encounter would inevitably raise questions about the customs or practices of the theorist’s own city. Why do we do things this way? Might there be a better way of organizing the regime? Might there be a best way of life that is not our way? This tension between the theorist’s role as critic and the city’s imperative to protect its way of life is deeply embedded in the history and the practice of political theory.

Patrick J. Deneen in “Patriotic Vision: At Home in a World Made Strange” from The Intercollegiate Review (Spring 2002), pp. 34-35.

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June 29, 2011

an offering for the Dryads

C.S. Lewis in “Is Theism Important? A Reply” from the Socratic Digest (1952):

When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into Paganism, I am tempted to reply, “Would that she were.” For I do not think it at all likely that we shall ever see Parliament opened by the slaughtering of a garlanded white bull in the House of Lords or Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads. If such a state of affairs came about, then the Christian apologist would have something to work on. For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is, essentially, the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man. The post-Christian men of our own day differ from his as much as a divorcée differs from a virgin. The Christian and the Pagan have much more in common with one another than either has with the writers of the New Statesman; and those writers would of course agree with me.

Marble relief of a bull prepared for sacrifice. 1 century AD.
(Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. Credits: Ann Raia, 2006.)

I heard this first passage last week in a lecture by Ken Myers. This second passage (also by Lewis, from Prince Caspian) caught my attention over the weekend as I read to my kids. In it Doctor Cornelius shares his hope that the “old days” might be restored. (He even gives Caspian a touching little regimen to follow: “be kind to the poor remnants of the Dwarf people … gather learned magicians and try to find a way of awaking the trees once more … search through all the nooks and wild places of the land to see if any Fauns or Talking Beasts … are perhaps still alive in hiding.”) As Lewis watches the dissolution of a post-Christian West, he is longing for a pre-Christian world.

In reflecting on this, it strikes me that every child starts out with the potential to make a devout pagan. Childish worlds are full of wonder and fear of the most passionate and lovely kinds. They are capable of being overwhelmed by a world that “is charged with the grandeur of God.” In some respects (particularly given the plasticized and fast-paced modern lives that we tend to live), it could even be said (by way of analogy) that the primal paganism in children must first be guarded and nurtured before they can start maturing into true Trinitarian Christianity.

From Prince Caspian, chapter 4:

“Never in all these years have we forgotten our own people and all the other happy creatures of Narnia, and the long-lost days of freedom.”

“I’m – I’m sorry, Doctor,” said Caspian. “It wasn’t my fault, you know.”

“I am not saying these things in blame of you, dear Prince,” answered the Doctor. “You may well ask why I say them at all. But I have two reasons. Firstly, because my old heart has carried these secret memories so long that it aches with them and would burst if I did not whisper them to you. But secondly, for this: that when you become King you may help us, for I know that you also, Telmarine though you are, love the Old Things.”

“I do, I do,” said Caspian. “But how can I help?”

“You can be kind to the poor remnants of the Dwarf people, like myself. You can gather learned magicians and try to find a way of awaking the trees once more. You can search through all the nooks and wild places of the land to see if any Fauns or Talking Beasts or Dwarfs are perhaps still alive in hiding.”

“Do you think there are any?” asked Caspian eagerly.

“I don’t know – I don’t know,” said the Doctor with a deep sigh. “Sometimes I am afraid there can’t be. I have been looking for traces of them all my life. Sometimes I have thought I heard a Dwarf-drum in the mountains. Sometimes at night, in the woods, I thought I had caught a glimpse of Fauns and Satyrs dancing a long way off; but when I came to the place, there was never anything there. I have often despaired; but something always happens to start me hoping again. I don’t know. But at least you can try to be a King like the High King Peter of old, and not like your uncle.”

June 28, 2011

when I came forth out of Egypt

This extended passage about a prayer from the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (“a little book with prayers for the Eucharist, baptism, ordination, and other rites reflecting practice in Rome at the end of the second century”) is again from Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (32-36). Although Wilken defends a Catholic conception of Christ’s re-sacrifice that I do not espouse, there is great value in his overarching insight that God’s redemptive acts, recorded in scripture and remembered in the sacraments, are a true and present reality to us.

Although it is a prayer of adoration, thanksgiving, and supplication, it has a distinct narrative structure.

…[This imitates] the psalmists [who] do not simply praise the majesty and goodness and power of God, they identify God by his actions, “his mighty deeds.” To praise God is to narrate what he has done.

…Yet it is apparent from the wording of the prayers that something more is at work here than recalling ancient history. After reciting the history of salvation leading up to the “night on which he was betrayed,” the prayer continues as follows: “And we sinners make remembrance of his life-giving sufferings, his death, and resurrection on the third day from the dead and ascension to the right hand of You, his God and Father, and his second glorious and fearful coming.” The key term here is the Greek word anamnesis, usually translated “remembrance,” which in this context means “recall by making present.”

There are parallels between this sense of remembrance and the way the Exodus out of Egypt is remembered in the Jewish Passover. In the Mishnah, the collection of Jewish law from the early third century, it is reported that Rabbi Gamaliel used to say, …”In every generation a man must so regard himself as if he came forth himself out of Egypt, for it is written, ‘And you shall tell your son on that day saying, “It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.”‘” Those who celebrate Pesach are not spectators, they are participants. “It is I who came forth out of Egypt,” says Rabbi Gamaliel. Remembrance is more than mental recall, and in the Eucharist the life-giving events of Christ’s death and Resurrection escape the restrictions of time and become what the early church called mysteries, ritual actions by which Christ’s saving work is re-presented under the veil of the consecrated bread and wine. Speaking of the Christian paschal celebration Origen wrote, “The Passover still takes place today” and “Those who sacrifice Christ come out of Egypt, cross the Red Sea, and see Pharaoh engulfed.” What was once accomplished in Palestine is now made present in the action of the liturgy, as the prayers indicate: “We offer to You 0 Lord, this awesome and unbloody sacrifice, beseeching You to deal with us not according to our sins.”” Liturgy is always in the present tense. The past becomes a present presence that opens a new future.

…The repeated celebration of the liturgy worked powerfully on the imagination of early Christian thinkers. It brought them into intimate relation with the mystery of the Christ, not as a historical memory, but as an indisputable and incontrovertible fact of experience. Leo the Great, bishop of Rome in the fifth century, put it this way: “Everything that the Son of God did and taught for the reconciliation of the world, we know not only as an historical account of things now past, but we also experience them in the power of the works that are present.” Before there were treatises on the Trinity, before there were learned commentaries on the Bible, before there were disputes about the teaching on grace, or essays on the moral life, there was awe and adoration before the exalted Son of God alive and present in the church’s offering of the Eucharist. This truth preceded every effort to understand and nourished every attempt to express in words and concepts what Christians believed.

June 27, 2011

no one ever did

From some reading with the kids yesterday in The Hobbit:

[Bilbo] did not, or course, expect that any one would remember that it was he who discovered all by himself the dragon’s weak spot; and that was just as well, for no one ever did.

(chapter 15, “The Gathering of the Clouds”)

Tolkien describes a character quality here that I can hardly imagine. Probably the top reason for this attribute is that Bilbo’s chief motivation, in all of his most heroic acts, is the thought of home (and of breakfasting upon eggs and bacon). Bilbo embodies the Ciceronian ideal of a bold public servant who longs only for the quiet life of his country estate.

June 25, 2011

endure all things as if foreigners

Eduard Bendemann “The Sorrowful Jews in Exile,” 1832 (from Psalm 137)

This Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus is a strong contender for the earliest Christan apologetic. Chapter five spells out a simple and beautiful attitude of early Christians toward the world around them:

CHAPTER V — The Manners of the Christians.

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.

Today I was at the Society for Classical Learning conference where Ken Myers (of Mars Hill Audio) challenged us to consider (among many other earnest issues) how the church (the assembly of God’s people) should live together with a distinctive culture of their own, one that is not arbitrary but like a stable, growing and ongoing new nation diffused within and throughout the nations of the world. This favorite passage about the “Manners of the Christians” seems in some ways to say that the church is not called to produce a unique community with a full culture of its own, so it continually came into my mind as a question during this lecture. However, upon reading the passage again, it is hard to imagine how such a tightly-knit and unique community within any nation could help but form a distinct counter-culture that would mature in beautiful ways, presenting a continual contrast and challenge to the culture of the surrounding nation or empire.

June 24, 2011

by it I see everything

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

From C.S. Lewis’ essay “Is Theology Poetry?” (1945). I had the humbling experience of hearing John Lennox speak several times during the past couple of days, and he closed his last address with a slight restatement of this quote. It’s from an essay that I have not read, but the quote itself was one of several standout lines from the past couple days.

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June 23, 2011

cruel inhumanity

“No degree of cruel inhumanity can destroy the religion founded on the mystery of the cross of Christ.” ~Leo the Great

June 22, 2011

a chirruping twang

I’ve been exposed to some of Prince Caspian this week. Here Lewis recognizes the powerful little connections between our worlds of memory and the simplest sounds or smells.

Archery and swimming were the things Susan was good at. In a moment she had bent the bow and then she gave one little pluck to the string. It twanged: a chirruping twang that vibrated through the whole room. And that one small noise brought back the old days to the children’s minds more than anything that had happened yet. All the battles and hunts and feasts came rushing into their heads together. (chapter 2)

Another passage made me recall thoughts about the subversiveness of any liberal arts education that is worth its salt. In an enslaved and broken world, any whole and freeing education will be insurrectionary in some sense.

“Hush!” said Doctor Cornelius, laying his head very close to Caspian’s. “Not a word more. Don’t you know your Nurse was sent away for telling you about Old Narnia? The King doesn’t like it. If he found me telling you secrets, you’d be whipped and I should have my head cut off.”

“But why?” asked Caspian.

“It is high time we turned to Grammar now,” said Doctor Cornelius in a loud voice. “Will your Royal Highness be pleased to open Pulverulentus Siccus at the fourth page of his Grammatical garden or the Arbour of Accidence pleasantlie open’d to Tender Wits?” (chapter 3)

And there is also the playful juxtaposition of two different attitudes toward Grammar: the punning Latin name of the fictitious text book author (Dry as Dust) versus the recognition of grammar as an introduction to a lush garden of language.

June 21, 2011

ooze of oil

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89)

God’s Grandeur

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

It’s a violation of this blog’s purpose to include much commentary on the passages, but I needed to write a prose reflection on this poem by Hopkins today and will include this gushy first draft (any feedback in the next couple of days will help me improve it before delivery):

Hopkins’ title and first line taken together form a simple chiasm (“God’s grandeur … grandeur of God”) with the “charged world” surrounded and throbbing at the center. Charge is an electrical term. It builds up over time. It is carried, potent and evenly dispersed (yet invisible), throughout the object.

Continuing this electrical (or scientific) language with “flame out,” “shining” and “foil,” we nonetheless shift to natural sunlight as the real source of the bright, piercing light. The world is only a mirror. We notice, too, the first introduction of violence as the cause of the brightness. Shook foil, creased and vibrating, reflects the light with almost overwhelming glory. It is the shaking that releases the potential, the built-up and hidden charge within.

This building up of a charge is echoed with “it gathers to a greatness.” Only now, with the “ooze of oil,” we are shifting to more ancient and agricultural images. “Crushed” is strongly emphasized by its solitary placement at the start of a line. It recalls and even intensifies the violence of “shook.”

Now the images come fast, harsh, jumbled, over-lapping, in a growing pile. “Generations that trod, trod, trod” maintains the agricultural picture (of olives or grapes being pressed under feet). It is fruitful and productive as well as wild, even wanton and destructive. This is an image of judgment, reinforced by the term “rod” in the previous line. Now we see the whole world, along with all of human history, as being charged, full of reflective potential, gathered to a pregnant greatness, ripe with oil for the pressing. At the same time, we (the trodders) are in rebellion against His rod. We do not recognize His bright and potent reign, although the world shines it out, drips with it, bleeds with it.

In this pile of negative and positive images, we feel tension. What is God using to shake out his grandeur, to press out this goodness, to harvest it? Despite (and through) our rebellion, our perverted labors, our abuse, the sufferings of the whole world itself are productive.

As listeners, we are by now involved and implicated in a brutal and ugly scene. This trodding is our own gross and heedless brutality. Even the oil (a source of light and life) is perverted and takes on a sinister sense as we witness a grimy, greasy fouling of the once shimmering foil. No light is reflected now from this crushed and dirty pulp. No longer charged and pregnant, it is violated and exposed by unfeeling generations of well-shod feet.

In the second stanza, we slow down and transition back to the opening lines, recognizing, even amid the bleary mess, a fullness and depth within the world. This being-charged-with-the-grandeur-of-God was too complete to be fully spent (shaken or trodden out). But this second recognition of fullness is less exuberant, more subdued yet more profound. We now face reverent words like “deep down” and “dearest freshness.” After the violence, the ugliness of searing toil, the smell of men who do not reckon with God’s rod, we find that this world cannot be ultimately marred. Whether we use the world well or we abuse her, only God’s grandeur can flame out. She is charged with nothing but goodness. She is fruitful and precious to her very pit.

Finally, blear and smear recurs as the world swoons away in blackness, until over the brown (barren) horizon “springs” a “morning,” a new creation under the hovering wings of the Holy Ghost. This second visitation of the Spirit brings to mind the first brooding of God over the darkness and chaos. But here, at this second dawn or birth, we see for a moment that the agent is, in some subsidiary sense, our own senseless marching, our own brutal trade. Heartless abuse and long suffering, in the deeper goodness of God’s economy, exposes or brings out only God’s grandeur. Christ’s own long-suffering and motherly Spirit puts even our facile abuses to the task of ushering life outward and forward, to the knowing of “dearest freshness deep down things.” Refreshed by the beauty that Hopkins’ language points to so faithfully, we might even be ready to walk unshod over seared and blackened earth. We might lay ourselves down and embrace the charged (and crushed) world with our own warm breasts and tender young wings.

June 20, 2011

delight of the eye

Another passage from Wilken:

When speaking of how God is known early Christian thinkers favored the metaphor of seeing, not hearing. In his response to Celsus, Origen cites a series of biblical texts that have to do with seeing: “Blessed are the pure in spirit for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8); “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jo. 14:9); and “Christ is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). From these he draws the conclusion that people come to know the “Father and maker of this universe by looking at the image of the invisible God.” Beauty is the corollary of seeing. In the Scriptures many of the key terms used of God’s self-disclosure, words such as glory, splendor, light, image, and face, have to do with the delight of the eye. When we speak of the pleasure the eye takes in what it sees the term that comes to mind is beauty. The psalmist wrote, “One thing have I asked of the Lord … that I will behold the beauty of the Lord” (Ps. 27:4).

As early as the second century the apologist Athenagoras of Athens included the term beauty in a list of words depicting God. The God we set before you, he says, is “encompassed by light, beauty, spirit, and indescribable power.” In his commentary on the Song of Songs Origen wrote that the “soul is moved by heavenly love and longing when it beholds the beauty and the comeliness of the Word of God.” God’s revelation can be seen from the perspective of its ineffable beauty as well as of its truth and goodness.”  (p. 20)

This point is central to the thesis of Wilken’s book (The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God) and shows how the medieval triad of goodness, beauty and truth started to be understood as three modes of knowing God and his revelation.

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