Time & Eternity

It seems that a lot of modern arguments over the existence and nature of immaterial reality hinge on a misunderstanding of what classic philosophers mean by ‘eternal’. Fool rushing in, I, the least among philosophers, will try to explain in one blog post what Aristotle and Thomas and hundreds of vastly better thinkers have filled libraries discussing. But, hey, never stopped me before! And maybe it will prove helpful to somebody. Weirder things have happened.

Here’s a description of how I understand the relationship between time and eternity as understood in a Thomist/baptized Aristotelian scheme:

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Da Man.  St. Thomas says so. 

Time is, as Aristotle says, the measure of motion. By motion, philosophers mean a change of any kind, not just changes in location. This definition may seem a little weird, but upon reflection is what any other meaningful definition must boil down to. For something to be one way or in one place and then get to another way or place, time must pass. A moment ago, the ball was orange and at my feet; now it is green and over there. Somethings have changed – time has passed.

Oddly enough, the key here is the verb ‘to be’ in its various forms. A mutable thing *is* at a given point of time; it *becomes* something else – green and over there – over time.

The funny thing: a man or a dog or tree or a river is what it is over the course of its life or existence, even though the material it is made of – meat or wood or water – changes over time. A man is the same man in some fundamental way over the course of his life, even if, as is the case, most of the material his body is made of gets swapped out, often many times, over the course of that life. Something persists over time that makes that man who he is, and it can’t be material. If it were matter, then a man would not be the same man after each meal or breath.

This fact, without which we could talk of no thing, has inspired much philosophizing and is at the roots of the Perennial Philosophy.  It is the recognition that some things are not matter and that talking and thinking about things requires a type of presence and persistence that matter alone does not offer.

Further, there are certain fundamental ideas to which no matter at all corresponds, that have no place in time whatsoever. No physical thing is a triangle or a rule of logic. Yet we are more certain of what a triangle is and what the law of noncontradiction means than we are of any of the ‘blended’ being we encounter in the physical world. These pure ideas are not mutable – it is of their nature that, if we understand them at all, we understand that they cannot change.

Some understanding of the nature of being falls out of this necessarily. Unchanging things belong to eternity. Eternity is not lots of time, or even infinite time, but rather is – something else. When we say that triangles, laws of logic, our souls or God are eternal, we don’t mean they last a long time, even an infinitely (unbounded) amount of time. We mean they are of a different order of being.

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Too humble to claim to be Da Man. But, really – he’s Da Man. 

Over the Physics and Metaphysics, hundreds of pages of Aristotle filled with arguments teasing out what reality is like. The Philosopher concludes that things in time – all the common things we experience – are the way they are because of immaterial things. Ultimately, through however long a chain of causes (or ‘becauses’ if you want) everything is caused – is and does what makes it the thing it is – by an eternal, unchanging Unmoved Mover. This, as Thomas pointed out 1500 years later, is what everyone understands is ‘God’.

In De Anima, Aristotle discusses the ‘soul’, by which he means the animating principle of all living things. Plants have souls which cause them to grow and reproduce; animals have souls that, in addition to growth and reproduction, allow them to sense and move about.  Men, as animals, have a soul that shares these powers. But men do one thing animals and plants don’t do – they understand.

Aristotle saw no reason animal and vegetable souls would be any less mortal than the material bodies they informed. You dog dies – its soul is gone. The remains are no longer a dog in any coherent sense – dead means ‘its soul is gone’ and that soul is what made that dog a dog. A dog, or a petunia, or a person does not have a soul; a living thing IS a soul and a body – an immaterial form informing matter. For plants and animals, the distinction between body and soul is purely intellectual or even theoretical. In practice, every plant and animal is both, or it is not a living thing.

Aristotle puts a surprising number of mental activities within the realm of the animal soul, because he, unlike most of us modern men, lived intimately with animals. He could see that a horse or dog figured things out, imagined some sorts of things in the course of acting (like where the rabbit was likely to be hiding), and even, in the case of dogs at least, dreamed dreams. But men do some categorically different thinking. We are capable of knowing eternal things, of pondering triangles, moral law and God Himself. Aristotle saw that this kind of thinking is different in kind from anything animals do, and so recognized a third kind of soul, the rational soul or intellect.

Here’s the logical step not followed, one I can’t spell out in a blog post: Souls capable of contemplating eternal things must themselves be eternal at least in some sense. Aristotle isn’t clear that this sense is personal as we understand it – that each individual human being has a unique immortal soul. Thomas spells this out: each human being has a unique immortal human soul that is and must be a direct creation of God.

The human soul is a creature of eternity. When we speak of our eternal home, we don’t mean a place within time, except with way more time. We mean a state beyond human understanding, of which we have only the faintest ideas as if seen in a mirror darkly. Somehow, within the Eternity that is God Himself, all creation from beginning to end is loved into being. Somehow, we have been given the incomprehensible gift of Time, within which we get to act on our nature formed in the image of God by understanding and creating and especially procreating.

A mystical as this all sounds, Aristotle, no Christian and no respecter of gods, got almost all the way there as a result of pure, hard-headed reasoning. He asked the hard questions: how is it that we know anything at all? How do we know about things like math, logic and the moral law that don’t materially exist? How is it that the world is so rationally ordered? In modern times, we flinch, and instead ask sophomoric questions and smirk suicidally at our own cleverness as we assert that our better questions are unanswerable: do we know anything at all? Are math etc. knowledge at all? Is the world really rational, or is that just us projecting?

Then we answer them. It is not clever to saw off the branch you’re sitting on, especially considering how high off the ground you are. To say we know nothing, that only material things exist and that what appears as an orderly world is just a projection, wishful thinking or a construct, is to destroy any basis for understanding or even communicating.  It’s not more reasonable. It’s just another flavor of the impulse that drives teenagers who snap back at their parents: I didn’t *ask* to be born!


Books I Loved But No Longer Do

Partial list off the top of my head:

The Metaphysical Club, by Menand. The first couple times I read this, missed or glossed over the nihilism and relativism (if those can be said to be substantially different) peeking out from every page. The stories told are so fascinating, the turnings of culture pivoting on the sins and limitations of so few minds while we many sleep – gripping stuff. And this book pointed out trailheads to a number of topics I’ve read more about since, I owe it thanks for that.

But, ultimately, Menand is a nihilist. His heart seems to wish there were meaning, even the sort of meaning that boils down to a raw exercise of personal power. He’s too smart to actually believe it, however, so I’m left only with his slick, beautifully written evasiness whenever he might wander near anything like an ultimate ‘why’.

Other writings reveal him as a Marxist apologist. Like Agent Smith defending himself to the Cookie Girl, old Karl, Menand claims, is not that bad! An avuncular adulterer, maybe! And who isn’t, these days? Not, as one reading Marx himself would conclude, the purveyor of a world view within which slaughtering 100 million or so unarmed children, women and men is not *necessarily* a bad thing, in, fact, could be required, if it moves the ball forward on the right side of History. Nihilism dressed as Relativism lurking behind the will to power masquerading as concern for the Masses.

In a similar way, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind is like a drug for a Great Books guy – the stories he tells, the points he makes, are blood-boilingly true – that, ultimately runs aground on the same question of ‘why’. Sure, these idiots are shoving everything that makes America and the West unique, wonderful and loveable down the memory hole – and? That’s a bad thing because? Just as people don’t describe our culture as Christendom anymore, Bloom wants us to love and defend results, it seems, without being making a stand for the cause of those results. It’s ultimately turtles all the way down.

Very fun read many years ago, but deeply unsatisfying today.

A bunch of old SciFi. It’s a little tragic to think how many of the books I just LOVED as a kid/young adult that largely appall me now. A few, such a Slan and Stranger in a Strange Land I read when I was older, and so realized I’d need to ignore a lot of fundamental looniness to enjoy them. Same old same old – some elect will come to save/exterminate all us peons for our own not too well defined good. Innocents dying? Omelette/eggs. Even if you don’t share a belief in a Divine Savior, that plotline is just old. Can we stop with stories that beat the drum for one’s own puffed-up self opinion (of *course* you’re among the elect! Who could doubt it? All that purges and guillotines stuff is in the past!) or for people who imagine they’d be doing you a favor if they just cut to the chase and killed you and yours?

Here are a couple I loved when I read them as a youngster, then later had ‘wait a minute!’ moments on. I still sort of like them with a childish affection, mostly, but, man, are they silly:

The Good Guys! Or, at least, the sympathetic indifferent guys who feel noble regret at humanity’s horrible fate. 

Clarke’s Childhood’s End. See comments above. In this story, Clarke goes with the saviors who, you know, kill us all. Well, stand by with their ever so noble and sympathetic feelings while we all – except for the elect! – die like animals at an evaporated watering hole. It’s all for the best!

Clarke’s 2001. This time, the Chosen One come back to save us puny humans from ourselves by snuffing out our silly nukes. Who hasn’t wished our silly nukes would get snuffed out, so that we could return to the good old days before nukes when everyone treated each other as brothers and treaded lightly upon Mother Gaia? (Not loving MAD, but nukes aren’t really the fundamental problem.)

Wow, picking on Clarke here, but there are others suffering from the same shortcomings, although generally in a less hippy-dippy fashion than Clarke.  A lot of Asimov, including the much-loved (by me, at least) Foundation series kind of loses it at the intersection of story and philosophy. But I’ll stop here for today.  Maybe more later.

Then, will need to do the reverse: books I didn’t like when I first read them, but now love. Preview: really didn’t see what the fuss about Lord of the Rings was when I first read it in high school. My future wife set me straight on that. Probably why she’s my wife.

The State and Revolution

The State and Revolution (amusingly referred to as TSAR – hilarious, if you’re not a Romanov) is a short book by Vladimir Lenin that I have not read, but intend to read. The indomitable Amanda Green has begun a series of posts discussing it here. 

Which post triggered the comment below, and, sticking to my policy of making sure I’m not read in as many places as possible, I repeat here:

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the fundamental Hegelian roots of all this: Hegel teaches that the world is becoming, not being – in the philosophical senses of the terms. This means that simple statements of fact, of being, are always fundamentally nonsensical, as nothing really *is* but rather is *becoming*. Therefore, logic doesn’t apply, because a fundamental claim of logic is that a subject can *be* something and *not be* something else (law of non-contradiction). Things, for Hegel, are always becoming something else, so they’re not really being anything!

So, what’s really going on for Hegel (a practicing Lutheran) is that the Spirit is ‘unfolding’ in History – that some few enlightened people (specifically, people who agree with Hegel) gradually come to see the new state of becoming coming, as it were, into the next stage of transient being (that whole synthesis schtick). The people who more or less consciously get on board are on the right side of History. Everyone else is consigned to the dustbin thereof.

Marx tosses almost all the sophistical subtlety of Hegel, but latches on to the whole History and becoming nonsense. This is why arguing that no real people will go along with money-free socialism (“The reality, ignored by all too many, is that the producers of the world would become the slaves to the takers.”) is pointless – 1st, because argument with Marxists is by their own definitions pointless, but also because ‘human nature’ as a claim of being is irrelevant – “human nature does not exist” – because what those who survive the purges, those on the Right Side of History, will *become* New Soviet Men.

How do we know this? Just asking the question puts you on the Wrong Side of History and marks you for culling.

That’s why there’s no arguing with convinced Marxists.

In the 105 (!) draft posts currently cluttering up the YSOTM backlog is one addressing these issues in more detail. You know, summarizing my amatuer understanding of thousands of pages of philosophy from writings spanning millennia in a blog post of a couple thousand words ripped off between dinner and bedtime.

One classic philosophical mistake, one seen explicitly and implicitly in the arguments of New Atheists all the time, is thinking of eternity as ‘a lot of time’ or ‘all time’. Instead, eternity is the realm of the unchanging, within which, as Paul says, we live and move and have our being. (That the Eternal is God – that the Eternal is the One Whose existence is of His essence, is the compelling result of a long string of arguments in Aristotle’s Physics and is expanded on in his Metaphysics – which is why, I think, those tomes are consistently ignored or misrepresented. That, and they’re really hard.) Who better to tackle such a topic than an armchair intellectual poser such as me!

Clearly, it will be a masterpiece worthy of your exquisite attention. As Chesterton once quipped, like all things I’ve never written, it’s the best thing I ever wrote.

Maybe I should get on it, clawing it from perfect potential into crass, flawed actuality.


A Triad & A Ponder

Here are two not-quite-complete yet compelling to me thoughts that haunt the windswept hallways of my head. Or something like that. When I consider history, especially the history of philosophy, it seems that certain ideas fall into stages: somebody forcefully, if not particularly logically, takes a position that sticks it to a particular concept of The Man. Then, thinkers come along who like the earlier forceful statement or its consequences, and they back-fill and scaffold it so that it can claim some respectability. Finally, the respectable-ish philosophical positions get reduced to slogans or New Think or something like that. Sets like this – old, forceful idea; philosophical back-fill; slogan – occur to me regularly. Of course, now that I sit down to type, I can only recall this one Triad. More later as events warrant.

I think that, for the people who believe them, these thoughts occupy the same strange emotional landscape, even if the logical connections are hidden (they’re there, but hidden).

Lot of drivel for a 3/4 baked idea. Anyway:


Post-Modern: You don’t understand because you aren’t woke.

Hegelian: The Spirit is not constrained by the rules of traditional logic.

Luther: Reason is a whore.

Ponder.  There really is a subset of people who get things done – leaders, we often call them – whose defining intellectual and emotional trait is defining and fixing on a goal, and then backing into the steps needed to achieve it. You see this, if it is the sort of thing you notice, at every level of life: the business and political worlds, certainly, but also the school meeting and church cleanup committee, and everywhere in between.

Many people, most people, it seems, rarely if ever notice what leaders are doing, but rather just notice who it is they’re following. They hear a heavily abstracted version of a goal – affordable health care, a great America (again) – and that’s all. Only a minority ask how, in detail, we are to achieve the goal, or even for a clear definition of what the goal is. All they do is decide which heavily abstracted vision they will accept.  It has taken me, a very small ‘l’ leader, a lifetime to understand this, and has caused me a lifetime of frustration – I want to explain, people don’t want an explanation. But they will follow.

Weird. I wouldn’t and don’t follow in that sense. Odd duck, me.

The constant regurgitation of Hillary’s popular vote ‘victory’ by her, I suppose, shell-shocked supporters is getting almost as pitiful as it is telling. They just don’t understand how Trump & his team would do what they obviously did: simply back into what steps were needed to win according to the rules in place at the time, and then execute the hell out of them. So, for a fraction of the money Hillary spent, they won. And Trump’s claim that, had the rules called for a popular vote victory instead, he’d have won that, too, ring true in light of the evidence at hand.

This state of things is, I think, simply inconceivable to a large number of people. They want to believe, and therefore do believe, there are essentially magical forces at work, forces that reward Right Thinking on the Right Side of History. These are the mental processes needed to be a socialist True Believer – the concepts break down at every step once you consider the real world so the true believer never considers the real world. Every failure is the fault of some other factor – not True Socialism; every success, however problematic upon examination, is conclusive. Sweden must be a paradise; Venezuela  is not Real Socialism.

What to do about the resistance of the real world to beautiful theory? We’ll just make New Soviet Men to replace the recalcitrant and unwieldy people we actually have, and everything will be wonderful! This seems practical and doable to certain people.

That such thinking is common would be even more panic-inducing if it weren’t for the mitigating grace that such thinkers don’t lead. On the flip side, it is terrifying to realize the people who do lead in this direction don’t think this way – they merely want power, which includes the power to eliminate those persistently recalcitrant and unwieldy people.


Man Was Not Meant to Think Alone

I’ve long been struck by the philosophical and theological sundering of man from other men that began in the 16th century. Since ideas matter, as Sola anything and Cartesian navel-gazing replaced living tradition and the Question method and, indeed, the very notion of a ‘school’ of thought, these bad ideas have also resulted in the physical separation of people from each other.

You need people, lots of people, for there to be traditions. You need people, generally a good number of people, to have a school of thought. Neither traditions nor schools of thought are created and maintained through correspondence or Twitter. Real, often obnoxious, people rubbing elbows make them and keep them alive. In the case of Sacred Traditions, those people included the Person of Jesus and His apostles and disciples, and their disciples down to the present day; schools of thought, at least until that fateful 16th century, were formed, developed and reinforced by actual scholars, often in actual physical proximity to each other in actual physical schools, arguing, yelling and occasionally knifing each other (1). It may not have always been pretty, but, boy, you can’t get any more human than that!

In the early 1500s, Luther declares his ‘Alones’ shifting the standard of religious study  from monasteries, which, despite the ‘mono’ in the name, were gatherings of men, to the lone plowboy reading the Bible all on his lonesome. Sure, that plowboy might benefit from talking with others, but in theory, all he needs for spiritual enlightenment is the Good Book and the ability to read it.

In 1630, Descartes goes to his room, pulls the curtains and writes his Meditations, shifting the process of philosophy from what men can figure out by interacting with the world around them – most particularly, interacting with the *people* around them – to what a man such as Descartes, Hume, Berkeley or Kant can figure out in the privacy of his own cranium. If that cranium can even be said to be known to exist.

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A gaggle of philosophers. That’s old school! That’s how you do it!

If we hold being Alone in our theology and philosophy to be the highest court above which no appeal can be made, how long will it take for us to assert that being alone in our personal judgements about, say, culture, government and my true self are likewise beyond appeal?

About 500 years, evidently.

Three things this day bring this to mind. First, this excellent essay by David Mills: The Bible’s not enough, which discusses the pervasiveness of Sola Scriptura even among Catholics. Second, a Twitter thread (so shoot me. I mean, think less of me.) where Morgon Newquist tells of her father, in a wheelchair at Disney World, offering to let a little girl sit in front of him to have a better view of a parade – and the parents react like he’s a child molestor. Finally, I’ve recently become part of the the RCIA team at our parish, and was given the task (and 10 minutes!) to explain how the Church reads Scripture.

We are so Alone. The ruins of go it alone theology and philosophy are everywhere. Rather than discovering ourselves in our relationships, we defiantly declare that only we alone can say who we are, depending solely on what we feel we are. We define *individual* rights, and deny they come from nature or nature’s God or even from our relationships to other people. Even the right to vote – especially the right to vote – is seen as definitive of *individual* worth, even if it is only practiced occasionally, and then as part of a large group for the purposes of the large group. It is an expression not of my role in society, but of my personal universe of truth. Thus, instead of seeing losing a vote as a worthy and acceptable outcome and motivation to try to change people’s hearts and minds, each loser is personally threatened, the victors seen as evil people trying to destroy his world.

Many seem to both want rights and want to be able to define them away from others. You must bake me a cake or give up your guns even if neither has any real effect on me, but I get to tell you who I am (and woe if you mess it up) and what world view you must adhere to so that I can feel good about my feelings. This trick is only possible for an more or less unconscious nihilist, who of course believes other’s worthiness depends on how well they support his view of himself, but also betrays how meaningless he feels his own feelings are.

The antidote is religious by definition. We must believe we are all in this together, that nobody can go it alone, in order to understand why the modernist nihilism won’t work. Or rather, why modernist nihilism should never be tried. We can try, doomed though the effort is, to believe in the unity of Mankind without believing in the God Who created that unity. But with or without God, the Brotherhood of Man is like the Equality of Man: nothing you can observe will support such beliefs unless you already believe them without evidence.

  1. Documents relate to “a student who attacked his professor with a sword” resulting in great damage being done to a lecture room – and to the lecturer himself.  From Medieval Students. Violence in medieval university towns was not uncommon.  I suspect there’s more than a bit of bias, both in the recording and interpretation of history – violent acts are memorable and judged noteworthy. A period of peace not so much. Read somewhere somebody saying that, by modern standards, the violence of the past was psychopathic. Of course, modern standards tend to overlook violence like firebombing cities, nuclear weapons, and the slaughter of a 100 million unarmed civilians by their own governments, so take that into consideration.

Lord of the World and the Death of God

As so often happens, a philosophical confluence. In the course of my more or less random reading, came across two writes, a century apart and coming at the issue from different angles, who notice the same thing. First, in Robert Hugh Benson’s wonderful and multiple-Pope-recommended 1907 novel Lord of the World, the rising English politician Oliver Brand thinks through what would nowadays be called his worldview:

As he looked from his window and saw that vast limit of London laid peaceably before him, as his imagination ran out over Europe and saw everywhere that steady triumph of common sense and fact over the wild fairy-stories of Christianity, it seemed intolerable that there should be even a possibility that all this should be swept back again into the barbarous turmoil of sects and dogmas…. Even Catholicism would revive, he told himself, that strange faith that had blazed so often as persecution had been dashed to quench it; and, of all forms of faith, to Oliver’s mind Catholicism was the most grotesque and enslaving….  There was but one hope on the religious side, as he had told Mabel a dozen times, and that was that the Quietistic Pantheism which for the last century had made such giant strides in East and West alike, among Mohammedans, Buddhists, Hindus, Confucianists and the rest, should avail to check the supernatural frenzy that inspired their exoteric brethren. Pantheism, he understood, was what he held himself; for him “God” was the developing sum of created life, and impersonal Unity was the essence of His being; competition then was the great heresy that set men one against another and delayed all progress; for, to his mind, progress lay in the merging of the individual in the family, of the family in the commonwealth, of the commonwealth in the continent, and of the continent in the world. Finally, the world itself at any moment was no more than the mood of impersonal life. It was, in fact, the Catholic idea with the supernatural left out, a union of earthly fortunes, an abandonment of individualism on the one side, and of supernaturalism on the other. It was treason to appeal from God Immanent to God Transcendent; there was no God transcendent; God, so far as He could be known, was man.

Later, Brand reads in the paper an account of the brave new world being ushered in by one Julian Felsenburgh, a mysterious American who is being called the Savior of the World:

“It is understood now, by fanatic barbarians as well as by civilised nations, that the reign of War is ended. ‘Not peace but a sword,’ said CHRIST; and bitterly true have those words proved to be. ‘Not a sword but peace’ is the retort, articulate at last, from those who have renounced CHRIST’S claims or have never accepted them. The principle of love and union learned however falteringly in the West during the last century, has been taken up in the East as well. There shall be no more an appeal to arms, but to justice; no longer a crying after a God Who hides Himself, but to Man who has learned his own Divinity. The Supernatural is dead; rather, we know now that it never yet has been alive. What remains is to work out this new lesson, to bring every action, word and thought to the bar of Love and Justice; and this will be, no doubt, the task of years. Every code must be reversed; every barrier thrown down; party must unite with party, country with country, and continent with continent. There is no longer the fear of fear, the dread of the hereafter, or the paralysis of strife. Man has groaned long enough in the travails of birth; his blood has been poured out like water through his own foolishness; but at length he understands himself and is at peace.

“Let it be seen at least that England is not behind the nations in this work of reformation; let no national isolation, pride of race, or drunkenness of wealth hold her hands back from this enormous work. The responsibility is incalculable, but the victory certain. Let us go softly, humbled by the knowledge of our crimes in the past, confident in the hope of our achievements in the future, towards that reward which is in sight at last—the reward hidden so long by the selfishness of men, the darkness of religion, and the strife of tongues—the reward promised by one who knew not what he said and denied what he asserted—Blessed are the meek, the peacemakers, the merciful, for they shall inherit the earth, be named the children of God, and find mercy.”

and Brand’s young wife Mabel,  trying to convince her dying mother in law to abandon Catholicism:

“Mother,” said the girl, “let me tell you again. Do you not understand that all which Jesus Christ promised has come true, though in another way? The reign of God has really begun; but we know now who God is. You said just now you wanted the Forgiveness of Sins; well, you have that; we all have it, because there is no such thing as sin. There is only Crime. And then Communion. You used to believe that that made you a partaker of God; well, we are all partakers of God, because we are human beings. Don’t you see that Christianity is only one way of saying all that? I dare say it was the only way, for a time; but that is all over now. Oh! and how much better this is! It is true—true. You can see it to be true!”

She paused a moment, forcing herself to look at that piteous old face, the flushed wrinkled cheeks, the writhing knotted hands on the coverlet.

“Look how Christianity has failed—how it has divided people; think of all the cruelties—the Inquisition, the Religious Wars; the separations between husband and wife and parents and children—the disobedience to the State, the treasons. Oh! you cannot believe that these were right. What kind of a God would that be! And then Hell; how could you ever have believed in that?… Oh! mother, don’t believe anything so frightful…. Don’t you understand that that God has gone—that He never existed at all—that it was all a hideous nightmare; and that now we all know at last what the truth is…. Mother! think of what happened last night—how He came—the Man of whom you were so frightened. I told you what He was like—so quiet and strong—how every one was silent—of the—the extraordinary atmosphere, and how six millions of people saw Him. And think what He has done—how He has healed all the old wounds—how the whole world is at peace at last—and of what is going to happen. Oh! mother, give up those horrible old lies; give them up; be brave.”

Written in 1907.

Next, came across the Death of  God Fifty Years On by Matthew Rose at First Things, published a year ago. In 1966, Time magazine’s cover story was entitled “Is God Dead?” This article, what we would now call click bait, created a furor. For youngsters, way back then people took magazines like Time seriously as not only purveyors of “news” but as important social and cultural barometers. Weird, huh?

Rose’s essay is very hard to excerpt, as it spins together, from paragraph to paragraph, many sources and writers to paint its picture. What follows gives some of the flavor, but it’s well worth reading the entire essay:

Altizer was taken with Nietzsche’s idea that Christianity generated its own fatal undermining. But he challenged ­Nietzsche on a critical point: It was not Christians who murdered God, but God who abolished himself. Altizer arrived at this conclusion through a controversial reading of other theologians. Among them was Karl Barth, who according to Altizer had initiated the Death of God movement. (Alasdair MacIntyre made a similar reading of the Swiss theologian in 1967.)

A central thesis of Barth’s theology is that God’s nature is bound up with his revelation in salvation history. Since we cannot know God apart from his self-revelation, argued Barth, we have true ­knowledge of the divine only through Jesus Christ. Altizer translated this claim about knowledge into a metaphysical thesis. He stipulated that God has no being apart from the historical person of Jesus. This allowed Altizer to say, with quite shocking matter-of-factness, that God is dead because he died in history, on the cross. God is incarnate in Jesus—and he dies in Jesus. “The radical Christian,” Altizer wrote in his 1966 manifesto The Gospel of Christian Atheism, “proclaims that God has actually died in Christ, that this death is both a historical and cosmic event.”

From the perspective of classical Christian ­theology, Altizer’s views can only appear nonsensical, but his understanding of God differed in fundamental ways from that tradition. Its roots were in the nineteenth-century philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, who interpreted history as the progressive realization of human freedom. Hegel’s main idea was that contradiction—or more precisely, the overcoming of contradiction—is the law of life.

His Phenomenology of Spirit told the speculative story of how human beings attain free ­self-consciousness through conflict that always leads to a higher resolution. In this history, he claimed, we learn to see historical conceptions of God as symbolic representations of the human drama of cultural ­development.

Hegel was deeply entangled with Christian theology and saw himself as preserving the spirit of Christianity rather than overturning it. He maintained, with perfect sincerity and considerable ingenuity, that his philosophy advanced a rational articulation of the teachings of the Bible. There are many twists and turns to Hegel’s philosophical re-narration of the scriptural story, but its most important claim is that God entered history in order to abolish his separation from it. History’s meaning and purpose are no longer “above,” but instead operate within the ongoing flow of human affairs. God’s coming into the world in Christ represents, symbolically, man’s coming-to-himself as the rational author of his own destiny.

The essay concludes by remarking that, while the theology of the death of God has had little academic traction, as a reflection of what was going on in the culture, however inarticulately, it was dead on.

Benson might have agreed.

Finally, how does this sort of thing metastasize across a culture? Benson gives a clue earlier in his novel. Mabel and her mother in law went to hear Oliver deliver a speech. The people gathered began to sing:

There was no doubt that these Londoners could sing. It was as if a giant voice hummed the sonorous melody, rising to enthusiasm till the music of massed bands followed it as a flag follows a flag-stick. The hymn was one composed ten years before, and all England was familiar with it. Old Mrs. Bland lifted the printed paper mechanically to her eyes, and saw the words that she knew so well:

The Lord that dwells in earth and sea.” …

She glanced down the verses, that from the Humanitarian point of view had been composed with both skill and ardour. They had a religious ring; the unintelligent Christian could sing them without a qualm; yet their sense was plain enough—the old human creed that man was all. Even Christ’s, words themselves were quoted. The kingdom of God, it was said, lay within the human heart, and the greatest of all graces was Charity.