Monday, June 14, 2010

G K Chesterton (29 May 1874 – 14 June 1936)

The God in the Cave
by G. K. Chesterton
"The place that the shepherds found was not an academy or an abstract republic; it was not a place of myths... explained or explained away. It was a place of dreams come true."   

This essay is excerpted from Chesterton's book, The Everlasting Man (1925)

Traditions in art and literature and popular fable have quite sufficiently attested, as has been said, this particular paradox of the divine being in the cradle. Perhaps they have not so clearly emphasised the significance of the divine being in the cave. Curiously enough, indeed, tradition has not very clearly emphasised the cave. It is a familiar fact that the Bethlehem scene has been represented in every possible setting of time and country of landscape and architecture; and it is a wholly happy and admirable fact that men have conceived it as quite different according to their different individual traditions and tastes. But while all have realised that it was a stable, not so many have realised that it was a cave. Some critics have even been so silly as to suppose that there was some contradiction between the stable and the cave; in which case they cannot know much about caves or stables in Palestine.

As they see differences that are not there it is needless to add that they do not see differences that are there. When a well-known critic says, for instance, that Christ being born in a rocky cavern is like Mithras having sprung alive out of a rock, it sounds like a parody upon comparative religion. There is such a thing as the point of a story, even if it is a story in the sense of a lie. And the notion of a hero appearing, like Pallas from the brain of Zeus, mature and without a mother, is obviously the very opposite of the idea of a god being born like an ordinary baby and entirely dependent on a mother. Whichever ideal we might prefer, we should surely see that they are contrary ideals. It is as stupid to connect them because they both contain a substance called stone as to identify the punishment of the Deluge with the baptism in the Jordan because they both contain a substance called water. Whether as a myth or a mystery, Christ was obviously conceived as born in a hole in the rocks primarily because it marked the position of one outcast and homeless.... 

It would be vain to attempt to say anything adequate, or anything new, about the change which this conception of a deity born like an outcast or even an outlaw had upon the whole conception of law and its duties to the poor and outcast. It is profoundly true to say that after that moment there could be no slaves. There could be and were people bearing that legal title, until the Church was strong enough to weed them out, but there could be no more of the pagan repose in the mere advantage to the state of keeping it a servile state. Individuals became important, in a sense in which no instruments can be important. A man could not be a means to an end, at any rate to any other man's end. All this popular and fraternal element in the story has been rightly attached by tradition to the episode of the Shepherds; the hinds who found themselves talking face to face with the princes of heaven. But there is another aspect of the popular element as represented by the shepherds which has not perhaps been so fully developed; and which is more directly relevant here. 

Men of the people, like the shepherds, men of the popular tradition, had everywhere been the makers of the mythologies. It was they who had felt most directly, with least check or chill from philosophy or the corrupt cults of civilisation, the need we have already considered; the images that were adventures of the imagination; the mythology that was a sort of search; the tempting and tantalising hints of something half-human in nature; the dumb significance of seasons and special places. They had best understood that the soul of a landscape is a story, and the soul of a story is a personality. But rationalism had already begun to rot away these really irrational though imaginative treasures of the peasant; even as a systematic slavery had eaten the peasant out of house and home. Upon all such peasantries everywhere there was descending a dusk and twilight of disappointment, in the hour when these few men discovered what they sought. Everywhere else Arcadia was fading from the forest. Pan was dead and the shepherds were scattered like sheep. And though no man knew it, the hour was near which was to end and to fulfil all things; and, though no man heard it, there was one far-off cry in an unknown tongue upon the heaving wilderness of the mountains. The shepherds had found their Shepherd. 
And the thing they found was of a kind with the things they sought. The populace had been wrong in many things; but they had not been wrong in believing that holy things could have a habitation and that divinity need not disdain the limits of time and space. And the barbarian who conceived the crudest fancy about the sun being stolen and hidden in a box, or the wildest myth about the god being rescued and his enemy deceived with a stone, was nearer to the secret of the cave and knew more about the crisis of the world, than all those in the circle of cities round the Mediterranean who had become content with cold abstractions or cosmopolitan generalisations; than all those who were spinning thinner and thinner threads of thought out of the transcendentalism of Plato or the orientalism of Pythagoras. The place that the shepherds found was not an academy or an abstract republic; it was not a place of myths allegorised or dissected or explained or explained away. It was a place of dreams come true. Since that hour no mythologies have been made in the world. Mythology is a search.... 

The philosophers had also heard. It is still a strange story, though an old one, how they came out of orient lands, crowned with the majesty of kings and clothed with something of the mystery of magicians. That truth that is tradition has wisely remembered them almost as unknown quantities, as mysterious as their mysterious and melodious names; Melchior, Caspar, Balthazar. But there came with them all that world of wisdom that had watched the stars in Chaldea and the sun in Persia; and we shall not be wrong if we see in them the same curiosity that moves all the sages. They would stand for the same human ideal if their names had really been Confucius or Pythagoras or Plato. They were those who sought not tales but the truth of things; and since their thirst for truth was itself a thirst for God, they also have had their reward. But even in order to understand that reward, we must understand that for philosophy as much as mythology, that reward was the completion of the incomplete.... 

The Magi, who stand for mysticism and philosophy, are truly conceived as seeking something new and even as finding something unexpected. That sense of crisis which still tingles in the Christmas story and even in every Christmas celebration, accentuates the idea of a search and a discovery. For the other mystical figures in the miracle play, for the angel and the mother, the shepherds and the soldiers of Herod, there may be aspects both simpler and more supernatural, more elemental or more emotional. But the Wise Men must be seeking wisdom; and for them there must be a light also in the intellect. And this is the light; that the Catholic creed is catholic and that nothing else is catholic. The philosophy of the Church is universal. The philosophy of the philosophers was not universal. Had Plato and Pythagoras and Aristotle stood for an instant in the light that came out of that little cave, they would have known that their own light was not universal. It is far from certain, indeed, that they did not know it already. Philosophy also, like mythology, had very much the air of a search. It is the realisation of this truth that gives its traditional majesty and mystery to the figures of the Three Kings; the discovery that religion is broader than philosophy and that this is the broadest of religions, contained within this narrow space.... 

We might well be content to say that mythology had come with the shepherds and philosophy with the philosophers; and that it only remained for them to combine in the recognisation of religion. But there was a third element that must not be ignored and one which that religion for ever refuses to ignore, in any revel or reconciliation. There was present in the primary scenes of the drama that Enemy that had rotted the legends with lust and frozen the theories into atheism, but which answered the direct challenge with something of that more direct method which we have seen in the conscious cult of the demons. In the description of that demon-worship, of the devouring detestation of innocence shown in the works of its witchcraft and the most inhuman of its human sacrifice, I have said less of its indirect and secret penetration of the saner paganism; the soaking of mythological imagination with sex; the rise of imperial pride into insanity. But both the indirect and the direct influence make themselves felt in the drama of Bethlehem. A ruler under the Roman suzerainty, probably equipped and surrounded with the Roman ornament and order though himself of eastern blood, seems in that hour to have felt stirring within him the spirit of strange things. We all know the story of how Herod, alarmed at some rumour of a mysterious rival, remembered the wild gesture of the capricious despots of Asia and ordered a massacre of suspects of the new generation of the populace. Everyone knows the story; but not everyone has perhaps noted its place in the story of the strange religions of men. Not everybody has seen the significance even of its very contrast with the Corinthian columns and Roman pavement of that conquered and superficially civilised world. Only, as the purpose in this dark spirit began to show and shine in the eyes of the Idumean, a seer might perhaps have seen something like a great grey ghost that looked over his shoulder; have seen behind him filling the dome of night and hovering for the last time over history, that vast and fearful fact that was Moloch of the Carthaginians; awaiting his last tribute from a ruler of the races of Shem. The demons in that first festival of Christmas, feasted also in their own fashion.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

St Columba (521- 577)

The Rule of St Columba

1. Be alone in a separate place near a chief city, if thy conscience is not prepared to be in common with the crowd.

2. Be always naked in imitation of Christ and the Evangelists.

3. Whatsoever little or much thou possessest of anything, whether clothing, or food, or drink, let it be at the command of the senior and at his disposal, for it is not befitting a religious to have any distinction of property with his own free brother.

4. Let a fast place, with one door, enclose thee.

5. A few religious men to converse with thee of God and his Testament; to visit thee on days of solemnity; to strengthen thee in the Testaments of God, and the narratives of the Scriptures.

6. A person too who would talk with thee in idle words, or of the world; or who murmurs at what he cannot remedy or prevent, but who would distress thee more should he be a tattler between friends and foes, thou shalt not admit him to thee, but at once give him thy benediction should he deserve it.

7. Let thy servant be a discreet, religious, not tale-telling man, who is to attend continually on thee, with moderate labour of course, but always ready. Yield submission to every rule that is of devotion.

8. A mind prepared for red martyrdom [that is death for the faith].

9. A mind fortified and steadfast for white martyrdom [that is ascetic practices].

10. Forgiveness from the heart of every one.

11. Constant prayers for those who trouble thee.

12. Fervor in singing the office for the dead, as if every faithful dead was a particular friend of thine.

13. Hymns for souls to be sung standing.

14. Let thy vigils be constant from eve to eve, under the direction of another person.

15. Three labors in the day, viz., prayers, work, and reading.

16. The work to be divided into three parts, viz., thine own work, and the work of thy place, as regards its real wants; secondly, thy share of the brethen's [work]; lastly, to help the neighbours, viz., by instruction or writing, or sewing garments, or whatever labour they may be in want of, ut Dominus ait, "Non apparebis ante Me vacuus [as the Lord says, "You shall not appear before me empty."].

17. Everything in its proper order; Nemo enim coronabitur nisi qui legitime certaverit. [For no one is crowned except he who has striven lawfully.]

18. Follow alms-giving before all things.

19. Take not of food till thou art hungry.

20. Sleep not till thou feelest desire.

21. Speak not except on business.

22. Every increase which comes to thee in lawful meals, or in wearing apparel, give it for pity to the brethren that want it, or to the poor in like manner.

23. The love of God with all thy heart and all thy strength;

24. The love of thy neighbor as thyself.

25. Abide in the Testament of God throughout all times.

26. Thy measure of prayer shall be until thy tears come;

27. Or thy measure of work of labor till thy tears come;

28. Or thy measure of thy work of labor, or of thy genuflections, until thy perspiration often comes, if thy tears are not free.

From A. W. Haddan and W. Stubbs, Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents Relating to Great Britain and Ireland II, i (London: Oxford University Press, 1873), pp. 119-121.
This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Theology of George MacDonald

MacDonald's theological views were unorthodox, particularly to modern eyes, although he has famous precursors in the history of Christian thought. Many of his ideas have, however, been filtered and refined through the writings of C.S. Lewis thus making them more accessible to a wider audience.
George MacDonald loved the bible but he had little time for the dry theological systems of the past. His spiritual vision and imagination was forged by reflecting on the beauty of God's creation (particularly the countryside of his birthplace in Scotland) and he found kindred spirits in the works of the romantic poets (themselves a reaction to the dry rationalism of the enlightenment) such as Coleridge and the youthful Wordsworth.

In the writings of Coleridge the poet was a prophet who mediated revelation to humanity through symbols and metaphors, particularly those found in nature and spoke of a transcendent reality beyond that which we commonly experience. This involved a response of the whole person rather than the mere assent of the will to a particular doctrine or creed. A personal revelation that found a response in the heart of every human being whether or not they were a believer.

Another key influence was the German romantic poet Novalis, who wrote, "We are closer to things invisible than to things visible." His belief was that men and women were on a journey Homeward.
The result of these, and other influences, was an organic rather than structured theology. Men and women are children of God and part of his family simply through being born and not because of any special experience or personal merit.

George MacDonald deliberately avoided setting out his ideas as a defined theological "system" preferring to allow his ideas and words to create a personal response in the hearer. This makes him hard sometimes to categorise. As the late William Raeper pointed out in his excellent biography, 

MacDonald's theology "celebrated the rediscovery of God as Father, and sought to encourage an intuitive response to God and Christ through quickening his readers' spirits in their reading of the Bible and their perception of nature."

Men and women are born out of the heart of God (not ex-nihilo as traditionally held by the church). Since the whole of creation has its origin in him, it is possible to approach him either through the bible or nature. This approach has similarities with the Neo-Platonic theories of Plotinus and Origin one of the early Church Fathers.

God is the Father welcoming his prodigal children home not just their creator or judge. Whether we realise it or not we are all on a road leading back to him. He is our Home. MacDonald believed that people were either responding to God or turning away from him . For MacDonald there was no absolute need for a moment of conversion as traditionally understood. We are all at different stages on the journey - a journey that has its beginning and end in God.

Spiritual awakening is a process of organic growth rather than a sudden discontinuity with the past. The soul is like a young plant reaching out to the light that illuminates every person whether Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim or atheist. Conversion is the moment of perception, illumination and understanding. As we have seen it does not represent a radical new departure but a sudden spurt of growth as the light penetrates our inner being.

The bible is a sign post to Christ. It is Christ, not the bible, who is God's revelation to humanity, and one reads the bible in order to respond to him. Right belief is secondary to obeying the light you have already received. For MacDonald social justice and the gospel could not be separated.

In Adela Cathcart, MacDonald spoke of God as "Him who is Father and Mother both in one" and "father and mother and home." (Vol.II, p76&77). For MacDonald the child (cf. Diamond in At the Back of the North wind) was often a type of Christ acting out God's plan in the world and bringing his creation back to him. It is the heart of a child alone who can find faith. Through submission and sacrifice one climbs the evolutionary scale - through dying one is made alive.
MacDonald recognised that truth could be separated into scientific truth and poetic truth (cf. C. S. Lewis' treatment of Myth). He held firmly to the literal truth of the resurrection and the miracles of Christ which he regarded as evidences of the higher law of love.

He followed Plato in thinking that evil was. to a large extent, a result of deprivation and not depravation. Human beings sinned because they did not see the truth clearly, and to have a clear vision of God would mean that they would be so overwhelmed by his love, that all wrongdoing would be immediately set aside. Seeing right was the beginning of acting right, and Christ was the clearest picture of God given to humankind.

He rejected totally the doctrine of penal substitution as put forward by Calvin which argues that Christ has taken the place of sinners and is punished in their place recognisingthat in turn it raised serious questions about the character and nature of God. Instead he argued that Christ had come to save people from their sins, and not from the punishment of their sins. The problem was not the need to appease a wrathful God but the disease of sin itself.

Salvation is a process of evolution toward Christ-likeness. We are marred by the Self. Sin is choosing not to obey and conform to the will of the Father in response to which God must send his consuming fire to burn the evil out of us.
"The wrath will consume what they call themselves; so that the selves God made shall appear." (Unspoken Sermons 1, p44).

MacDonald would accept no compromise with sin but saw evil as a discord that will eventually be brought into harmony with God when the whole of creation is reunited with him.
Hell is not a place of punishment but a place of purification to prepare one to enter God's presence. 

True repentance, however, is essential.
"All pains, indeed, and all sorrows, all demons, yea, and all sins themselves, under the suffering care of the highest minister, are but the ministers of truth an righteousness." (Mary Marston, Vol.II, p.321). Some things that we call evil are sent to bring the sinner back to God.
He was open to the possibility that some might recognise good for what it is but still choose the bad, but he did not think this very likely.

Thus Hell is not a place of eternal conscious torment in fire but an ultimate, final encounter with God. Hell is knowing the infinite loss of God and is forced on no one. It is self selected. As C. S. Lewis wrote, "There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, "Thy will be done", and those to whom God says, in the end, "Thy will be done". (The Great Divorce, p72). It is a falling out of the hands of the one who loves us.

He believed that death is not an end but a doorway into a greater reality.
"For I suspect the next world will more plainly be a going on with this than most people think - only it will be much better for some, and much worse for others, as the Lord has taught us in the parable of the rich man and the beggar." (There & Back, Vol.III, pp.138-9).

Salvation is rooted in God's love and his will to save, not in the reckoning of accounts. Legal metaphors of guilt and judgement play their part in the Scriptures, but the reality beyond the metaphor is relational and personal, it relates to God' search for fallen human beings and their response or otherwise to his initiative. This search does not cease at the point of human death. This life is simply a stage on the journey Home.

George MacDonald taught a religion of the heart not the head. People could not be driven into the kingdom of God but rather led by example in the doing of good. He thirsted for a [mystic] union with the divine that would enhance rather than submerge human individuality. MacDonald sought to express the divine in the human, and the human in the divine. As Father, God is calling his children Home. God reveals himself through creation but supremely through Christ, the obedient Son.