Theology: Developed versus Evolved

Image result for famous fossilsI’m part of a team at our local parish doing RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults – the 6-9 month process an adult who wants to become Catholic goes through prior to 1st Communion, Confession, Confirmation and, if needed, Baptism).  I’m sort of the philosophy/history person, although the director and a couple of the other people on the team are perfectly capable of covering it. I talk too much.

We use a variety of materials from a couple of sources, of varying depth and quality. One, addressing what exact topic I’m not recalling the moment, used the word ‘evolve’ regarding Catholic dogma.

I probably don’t need to point out to many of the readers of this blog that ‘evolve’ is exactly the wrong term to use when discussing Catholic theology and dogma. ‘Develop’ is the right word to use.

First, evolve is used in (at least) 2 senses: the technical, biological sense, meaning changes to characteristics of a population over generations; and, more commonly, to mean ‘changing in a direction I like’.

The second sense is fundamentally dishonest, although I hasten to add that most people who use the word this way are most likely completely unaware of the dishonesty. They just picked it up from the way college-educated (“smart”) people talk, and would no doubt be baffled to discover educated people who object to that usage. What is dishonest is the replacing of ‘what I like’ with ‘what is obviously true’. Changes I don’t like are never said to be examples of evolution, but are instead given a pejorative label like ‘regressive’. This substitution takes place below the level of conscious thought almost all the time, I will generously believe for as long as I can.

Starting in the mid 19th century, Hegelians and their idiot children the Marxists met up with Darwin and his less clear-thinking offspring, the Darwinists, and discovered a happy (to them) marriage: the inevitable forward march of the Spirit/History was exactly like, nay, was perfectly embodied in, Darwinian evolution. Just look at how modern, more recent creatures are superior to ancient, outdated creatures! Why, it’s *just like* how modern, progressive ideas replace old, counter-revolutionary ideas by weight of their sheer luminous awesome superiority! It’s not a matter for argument, it’s a simple observation: just as dogs and elephants and canaries are obviously superior to velociraptors, diplodocuses and pterodactyls, democratic, scientific economics is superior to the primitive, competitive ‘free’ market.(1)

One remarkable thing in the history of ideas is how much effort, sometimes, the father or champion of a particular idea puts in to saying exactly what he does and does not mean, while later champions steamroll any subtilty in their hurry to use what they see as the gist of the idea for their pet projects. Thus, Hegel is careful to say that the forward march of the Spirit as revealed in History does not by its very nature admit of its use as a crystal ball – that the whole point of this gradual revelation is that we *don’t* know the future. We require Revelation, which doesn’t depend on and is not subject to human reason. Marx, finding Hegel’s disposal of logic useful but having no use for the divine revelation in History that take its place, immediately claims to know the future by virtue of his understanding of the Dialectic. It’s turtles all the way down, sure, but Marx has thrown out the top few layers of turtles and stands in midair. Charles Sanders Peirce, the father of Pragmatism, goes to great lengths to say Pragmatism is not merely the idea that the ends justify the means, only to have his great pragmatic successor, John Dewey, say exactly that.

Darwin himself does not use the word ‘evolution’ once in the 1st edition of the Origin of Species, and uses ‘evolve’ exactly once, as the last word in the last sentence of the work. (2) In the 12 years after publication of the Origin of Species before publication of the Descent of Man, followers of Darwin got labeled ‘Evolutionists’, so evolution does show 30 times in the later volume. Darwin claims that the ideas he presents in Descent will no doubt result in establishment of a scientific footing for psychology, since it’s clear (!) that consciousness and all other human mental characteristics and capabilities evolved from more primitive precursors in the lower animals from which man evolved.  Somewhere in there, evolution, which is at its roots akin to a simple observation, just one small inferential step removed from looking at related living species and the bones of what might be their ancestors, became the fundamental characteristic of EVERYTHING.(3)

And Darwin was more restrained than his followers. We end up with the second meaning of evolution as describing ‘change I like’ as little more than a Hegel-light or Marxist/materialist clarification of what Descent is talking about.

Image result for valley oakDevelopment is something much more organic and even ancient, having philosophical roots in Aristotle’s idea of Nature. A natural thing has within its nature principles of motion distinct from the accidental causes that might move it or, more generally, change it. An oak tree grows from an acorn. The principles of growth from acorn to oak tree are contained in – are the nature of – the acorn. The acorn might grow to be a majestic valley oak or a stunted oak among rocks or, indeed, get eaten by a squirrel. Those outcomes are at least partly the result of accidents. Growth from acorn to oak are by nature.

That gigantic digression out of the way, we now get back to theology. To understand that theology and church teaching in general might develop from what is already there should cause no one any heartburn. Any new understanding must point back to and be consistent with older understandings. An eternal God is impossible for us limited humans to fully understand, but as He is unchanging and internally consistent, so too must be our theology. People who want to contradict previous teachings must hope theology can evolve, meaning, as explained above, change in a direction they like, never mind logic or consistency. They hope, however unclear they are about it, for Hegelian revelations in history that are not subject to human reason and have no need to be consistent with what came before.

God is a God of Being – “I AM” – not a god of becoming.

  1. Unless we’re social Darwinists, in which case the same argument is made to support the opposite outcome of Übermenschen perhaps wiping a tear of passing weakness from their superior eyes as they witness the inevitable suffering and death of the less fit, before returning to their world-conquering ways. Beware theories that can be easily used to explain contradictory outcomes.
  2. “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
  3. In writing this, it occured to me that my love of The Origin of Species has blinded me to the mess that is much of Descent: the overly-cautious Darwin of Origin, fresh, no doubt, from lying in a field watching bees pollinate clover, is always willing to acknowledge criticisms and admit of lacuna. The more mature Darwin of Descent will talk about consciousness as being of the same species, as it were, as a bird’s colorful feathers. Both exist in the natural world (he assumes) and thus are subject to the same set of evolutionary explanations. It’s like I turn to the baby pictures of a beloved child who is now doing hard time, and pretend my baby is still innocent.
Advertisements

The Good Shepherd

Image result for good shepherdYesterday’s Gospel reading was the Good Shepherd passage from John 10:

Jesus said:
“I am the good shepherd.
A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
A hired man, who is not a shepherd
and whose sheep are not his own,
sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away,
and the wolf catches and scatters them.
This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd,
and I know mine and mine know me,
just as the Father knows me and I know the Father;
and I will lay down my life for the sheep.
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.
These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice,
and there will be one flock, one shepherd.
This is why the Father loves me,
because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.
No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own.
I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again.
This command I have received from my Father.”

The priest pointed out in his homily how, to Jews who all knew the Psalms, this claim was Jesus setting Himself up as the equal to the Father – the Lord is my Shepherd, as they all knew. This is precisely the point John (and Jesus!) is making: John’s Gospel starts by saying the Word is with God and the Word is God on the first page, and ends with Thomas declaring ‘My Lord and my God!’  near the end.

So that’s is well. One more thing to point out, that no doubt has been pointed out a million times but just not to me: In the first chapter of John, John the Baptist declares: “Behold the Lamb of God!” when Jesus walks by. So Jesus is both the Shepherd and the Lamb. Finally, Jesus says to love one another as I have loved you.

In this reading, it is the shepherd’s willingness to die for his sheep that is distinctive. In the Psalms, the Good Shepherd is unchallenged – He is perfect protection and comfort for the sheep. It is new thing to suggest that the Lord would die for them.

The Crucifixion is always recognized as the supreme act of Jesus’s love for us.

Image result for Lamb of God

So: atheists sometimes quip that Christians forget what a shepherd’s job is – to look after the sheep so that they might, eventually, be slaughtered and eaten. In this one sense, they are right: Jesus, as the Master Whose example his students are to follow,  as the Lamb of God, is shepherding us to a sacrificial life and death. We become, in imitation of Him, lambs led to the slaughter. We become, if we follow truly, the Pascal Lamb, Whose death frees Israel from slavery, Whose blood on the doorposts fends off death and Whose flesh feeds the former slaves for their journey. We are shepherded to die to ourselves and live only in Him, and to become the Body of Christ.

Probably this is old hat to more attentive Catholics. But I’ve never heard the Lamb and the Shepherd discussed together in this way.

These Chairs Offend Me

Descending from the ridiculous to the even more ridiculous, consider:

IMG_4887

With my squirrel-level ability to focus and Golden Retriever capacity for distraction, I have been driven nuts for, I dunno, a couple decades by the chairs shown above, a set of which infests the lovely Lady Chapel at a local church.

You must be joking, I hear, from way over here, your generous brains thinking a little too loudly. Could there be anything more innocuous than these bland church chairs? He must be kidding.

Image result for Peet's coffee chairs
For comparison, here is a perfectly bland and functional chair, spotted at a Peet’s Coffee. It does not offend.

You wish.

For a couple decades now, whenever we go to this church, I think to myself EVERY SINGLE TIME ‘what dumb chairs. What a waste of perfectly good wood. They’re so doomed.”  Then my tiny brain, which should be directed at, oh, say, the Mass or God or something along those lines, is instead imagining how I would have designed those chairs, or what could be done to fix them, until somebody launches into a agnus or rings a bell or otherwise brings my attention back to what I’m supposedly doing. For about 0.75 seconds. Then it’s back to chairs.

Why do these chairs so offend? That would take an entire blog post to expla – Oh.

Let me count the ways:

  1. The seat frames are squares of boards joined with finger joints – sturdy enough, but structurally independent of the legs.
  2. the front legs are two straight board simply bolted to the seat. The bolts and maybe some glue are the only thing holding them on.
  3. The back legs are two longer straight boards joined to a curved and padded plywood seat back and also simply bolted onto the seat frame.
  4. All legs are set perfectly perpendicular to the seat and floor.

And? Well, within short order once put into use, those leg joints are going to loosen up, especially the back ones. If you look at the Peet’s chair pictured above, you can note that the back legs are *curved*, integrated into the seat frame, and set at a slightly less than right angle both to the floor and seat. The back leans away to a similar degree.

If you do something crazy in that Peet’s chair, like sitting in it or – heaven forbid! – leaning back in it, the legs are designed to absorb that kind of stress: they are not perfect little levers to transfer all the force of your sitting or leaning directly into the single point where a bolt attaches them to the seat frame. The legs are designed, in other words, to incorporate best chair design practices from at least the last 1,000 years or so of people building chairs.

The church chairs – wow, profound metaphor time! – are built as if all that history never happened, that we clearly superior moderns don’t need to pay no mind to those old dead guys and their perfectly functional chairs.

IMG_4888
Front legs. Oh, the humanity!

The front legs suffer the same flaw: perfectly straight up and down and simply bolted on. Front leg get less of the leaning/sitting/sliding stress than the back legs, but they get some, and over time, loosen up as well.

When one sits in these chairs, there is a wobble ranging from disconcerting to scary.  Many of the chairs have been ‘repaired’.  (I didn’t get pictures. A somewhat crazed-looking old guy with a phone camera taking pictures of chairs in the chapel while the little old ladies are trying to pray: a talk with Father, or possible Officer, O’Reilly gets more likely by the minute.) The repairs are obvious and obviously doomed (not that I blame the repairman – worth a shot): drill a hole or two and stick a couple more bolts through, lather on some more glue, or both.

Ugly. And doomed – such repairs simply invite additional structural failure, and make splitting the wood more likely. I’ve never witnessed some poor soul sitting on the ground in the wreckage of one of these chairs, but I’d be surprised if it had not happened more than once.

For the defense: as designed, these chairs have lasted (with repairs) about 2 decades. How bad can they be? Also, although I’ve never seen them stacked, it’s possible they were designed to be stacking chairs and what I perceive as flaws are there to allow better stacking.

I answer that plenty of stacking chairs aren’t this bad. Further, stacking chairs offend all sound liturgical sentiment: in the same way that paper missilettes embody the ‘disposable Word of God’ sentiment, stacking chairs convey a ‘we haven’t made up our minds what this church building is really *for*’ concept.

How would I have fixed this design?

  1. Integrate the legs into the seat frame, so that stresses are distributed over multiple wood-to-wood contacts (you know, like how every decent wooden chair has been designed for centuries).
Image result for chair joints
A Sam Maloof joint joining the rear leg of a chair to the seat. Functional and beautiful – everything the Chairs That Shall Not Be Named lack! One needn’t go to this level of art, although Maloof cut and fitted these legs mostly using a table saw, a router and a rasp. Just do it like everyone has been doing it for centuries.

2. Curve the back legs so that in the inevitable event that somebody leans back in the chair, the stress is better distributed.

Chair back legs
A lame drawing illustrating the point. Yes, I’m a LITTLE COMPULSIVE. Why do you ask?

Deep breaths. Exhale. Ah, all better now.

 

What The Results of Schooling Look Like in Practice

I’m sure we all have examples. The flip-flop on the importance of The Memo provides a very real current one, as clear as Winston Smith feeding the Memory Hole. Up until The Memo’s release, we were told by all the usual suspects that releasing such delicate classified information would be the End of the World as We Know It, a dastardly betrayal of our internal spies.

Then, upon release, The Memo became a nothingburger.

We have always been at war with Eastasia. How can millions of people be wrong?

A few years back, when the IRS’s treasonous perfidy came to light, I saw first hand, as K remarked, “everything we expect from years of government training.” In failing to approve tax exempt status of groups that would oppose the current administration, the IRS hamstrung any grassroot efforts of Obama’s opponents. That’s treason, however you dress it up.

On the day the news escaped into the wild despite the best efforts of the press to ignore it, my lovely niece, a lawyer with multiple degrees from elite universities, looked a little baffled. Then, the press  nothingburgered it. And the next day she assured me it was no big deal, had been completely overblown.

A lawyer said this.

She just needed to wait to hear what the cool kids were saying, and that became the reasonable, right position. Shoving news from a few hours or minutes earlier down the chute to history’s incinerator is, frankly, a small, a very small price to pay to maintain one’s membership in good standing with all the Right People. The trick is that, with 16 or more years of training, the knee jerk reaction, the jettisoning everything needed to maintain the consensual hallucination, is so well ingrained that the process stands no chance of rising to consciousness. Like the children of alcoholics, the well schooled have learned thoroughly that the price of contradicting daddy’s version of events cannot possibly be worth the trouble. The little kids learn from the older ones to shut up and get in line, even if mommy’s story makes no sense and contradicts the evidence of their eyes. It’s a basic survival technique.

Peace, after this fashion, is way more important than the truth. What is truth, anyway? These victims are almost blameless. As with most of us in some way or another when it comes to our besetting faults, it would take a miracle to make them see themselves.

Image result for miracle max
Good luck storming the castle!

Which brings us to the theological point of all this: Christ says He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. We are to defend small ‘t’ truth in the name of big ‘T’ Truth. For the devil is the father of lies. We are not asked, usually, to swallow the big lie that is death all at once. Rather, we are inured, one little bite at a time, until we will swallow the manifest contradictions and hypocrisy of our betters without a hiccup. We develop the unhingeable jaws of the snake, our maws stretching wide such that, after proper training, we can swallow things unimaginable to the observer, things way bigger than our heads.

Ave Fit Ex Eva

Happy, holy and blessed Feast of the Immaculate Conception!

Image result for immaculate conception greco
Immaculate Conception, El Greco, 1610. You can count on El Greco for weird and arresting colors and composition, and also for unusual insights into the emotions of the scene depicted. For example, study Mary’s face in the painting. 

This is a lovely and evocative feast. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is a wonderful expression of faith understood through tradition and logic.

I was a little disappointed at mass this morning when the homilist stuck to a Sunday school level exposition of the mystery of the Immaculate Conception. He first spent a couple minutes making clear that we’re talking about Mary being preserves from original sin, not Jesus’s divine conception or virgin birth, then explained how Mary needed to be kept free of sin in order to be the Mother of the sinless God – well and good.  But we left it there.

It was completely orthodox, something for which I suppose I should be thankful, especially given some of the homilies I’ve heard at this particular church (recently retired: a Jesuit, and a super-duper spirit of V-II priest.) But my mind went back to this little ditty, the sources of the text for which dates to the Middle Ages:

(Not the exact text Williametta Spencer used – I couldn’t find it – but close)

1. Gabriel of high degree,
He came down from the Trinity
From Nazareth to Galilee,
Nova, nova, nova! Ave fit ex Eva

2. He met a maiden in a place;
He kneeled down before her face;
He said: “Hail, Mary, full of grace!”
Nova, nova, nova! Ave fit ex Eva

3. When the maiden saw all this,
She was sore abashed, ywis,
Lest that she had done amiss.
Nova, nova, nova! Ave fit ex Eva

4. Then said the angel: “Dread not you,
Ye shall conceive in all virtue
A child whose name shall be Jesu.”
Nova, nova, nova! Ave fit ex Eva

5. Then said the maid: “How may this be,
God’s Son to be born of me?
I know not of man’s carnality.”
Nova, nova, nova! Ave fit ex Eva

6. Then said the angel anon right:
“The Holy Ghost is on thee alight;
There is no thing unpossible to God Almight.”
Nova, nova, nova! Ave fit ex Eva

7. Then said the angel anon:
“It is not fully six months agone,
Since Saint Elizabeth conceived Saint John.”
Nova, nova, nova! Ave fit ex Eva

8. Then said the maid anon quickly:
“I am God’s own truly,
Ecce ancilla Domini.”
Nova, nova, nova! Ave fit ex Eva

It seems those poor ignorant medieval peasants were getting markedly deeper theology in popular songs than one can nowadays expect from the pulpit.

The refrain is the key: Ave, the first word of the angel’s greeting of Mary, is made from (fit ex) Eve’s sin. The medievals loved the little accidental palindrome of Ave – Eva. In fact, they didn’t really believe in coincidences like this – they thought that the all-loving God would quite naturally use little associations like this to make His Love known.

For the Ave really is made by reversing the Eva. Mary is not the only Immaculate Conception, in the sense of the only person born without Original Sin. There are 4: Mary, her Divine Son, Adam – and Eve.

Eve, sinless and blessed with a personal knowledge of God, who walked with them in the cool of the evening, nonetheless chose to reject His will. By means of her ‘No’ to the will of God, all her children inherited a darkness of intellect, a weakening of the will, and a tendency to choose evil. And we all thus die.

Mary, also sinless and blessed – full of grace, even – and free of those curses, is thus able to respond to God’s call with complete freedom. By means of her ‘Yes’ all her children inherit the grace of salvation, and are likewise free to chose to do God’s will.

Eve, the mother of mankind, and Mary, the Mother of God and the mother of the all who follow her Son, are set in parallel for our contemplation. One chose hard but well, the other chose poorly. One was faced with a simple prohibition – don’t eat the fruit! – and could not trust God enough to obey. The other was faced with a huge unknown, and chose to trust God’s will anyway. Neither knew what would happen, but Eve hoped to become a god herself but becomes instead the mother of sin, while Mary loses herself in God and becomes the queen of heaven and earth.

When it comes to revealed truths, Thomists have from the beginning loved to argue from appropriateness – we may not be able to reason our way to a particular truth (that’s why it is revealed) but we can see that the revelation is meet and just. And thus it is with the Immaculate Conception: it is meet and just that, since sin entered the world through the choice of the woman Eve, that salvation should enter the world through the choice of the woman Mary; that, as Eve was sinless and thus perfectly free to choose, Mary must needs be sinless and perfectly free to choose; that, just as the result of Eve’s poor choice was death for her children, the result of Mary’s good choice is life for her children. As brothers and sisters of Christ, we are children of Mary.

The Immaculate Conception is celebrated as a great feast of Advent, because Mary’s preparation for the coming of Our Lord, and embrace and acceptance of the consequences of that coming, are meant to inspire and inform our own preparations and our own acceptance of the Lord. Our salvation is and has always been an unmerited gift. We must, like Mary, say ‘yes’ and be prepared to live out the implications of that yes in our lives.

The Harrowing of Hell, depicted in the Petites Heures de Jean de Berry, 14th-century illuminated manuscript By Anonimous – from en.wikipedia.org, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3170407

The final punchline is something often portrayed in medieval art: the Harrowing of Hell. Christ, during His time in the Tomb, is portrayed opening the gates of Hell and freeing those souls who had yearned for His coming but were not yet saved because he had not yet come.

The first two people out are always Adam and Eve. Thus, even Eve, our mother in sin, is saved by means of the ‘Yes’ of Mary, our mother through our being the brothers and sisters of Christ. To the medieval mind, the symmetry and beauty of such a resolution and such mercy was indeed meet and just, a magnum mysterium to be contemplated in awe.

 

 

 

 

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.

Image result for school of athens
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.