O God of earth and altar (Cum terra Deus arae)

G K ChestertonO God of earth and altar,
Bow down and hear our cry,
Our earthly rulers falter,
Our people drift and die
The walls of gold entomb us,

The swords of scorn divide,
Take not thy thunder from us,
But take away our pride.

From all that terror teaches,
From lies of tongue and pen,
From all the easy speeches
That comfort cruel men,

From sale and profanation,
Of honour and the sword,
From sleep and from damnation,
Deliver us, good Lord!

Tie in a living tether
The prince and priest and thrall,
Bind all our lives together,
Smite us and save us all;
In ire and exultation
Aflame with faith, and free,
Lift up a living nation, 
A single sword to thee.

– G. K. Chesterton

What’s Wrong with the World: An Inkling of a Response

Last Saturday, St. George Cathedral in Wichita hosted the second annual Eighth Day Symposium on ‘What’s Wrong with the World: An Inkling of a Response’. Here are the talks:

1. Ralph Wood, What’s Wrong with the World: C.S. Lewis Offers an Inkling of a Response

2. Warren Farha, The Inklings: Friendship as a Source of Cultural Renewal

3. Stan Cox, Charles Williams: The Affirmation of Being as a Foundation of Christian Culture

4. Ralph Wood, What’s Right with the Church: G.K. Chesterton on the Sacramental Imagination

[HT: Ancient Faith Radio]

On chronological snobbery and evangelical realignment in the word of God

Roots

I’ve been busy preparing a paper for an upcoming conference on Calvin. My paper, titled ‘John Calvin: Servant of the Word’, attends to the notion of Calvin as servant/minister of the Word, and considers the attention that preaching occupied in the Reformer’s ministry, his understanding of preaching as divine accommodation, as public, as event, as the Word of God, and its relationship to the proclamation activities of font and table. Along the way, I manage to entertain a few detours, one of which concerns ‘chronological snobbery’.

G.K. Chesterton once quipped that ‘Real development is not leaving things behind, as on a road, but drawing life from them, as from a root. Even when we improve we never progress. For progress, the metaphor from the road, implies a man leaving his home behind him: but improvement means a man exalting the towers or extending the gardens of his home’. 

One recalls here that oft-quoted phrase employed by Inklings C.S. Lewis and Owen Barfield – ‘chronological snobbery’. ‘Chronological snobbery’ is the notion, in Barfield’s words, that ‘intellectually, humanity languished for countless generations in the most childish errors on all sorts of crucial subjects, until it was redeemed by some simple scientific dictum of the last century’. ‘Chronological snobbery’ is a fruit of one of modernity’s great lies, and one which slices of the Church have swallowed with significant detriment.

But a recovery of the Church’s health cannot be purchased via an attempt to return to some golden age. Rather – as the history of God’s people teaches us repeatedly – such recovery comes via realignment with the Church’s evangelical and catholic centre in the gospel itself borne witness to in the prophetic and apostolic writings. At a time when ‘chronological snobbery’ remains the outlook for many, the reading and promotion of such a word will seem ‘countercultural, provocative, [and] strange’.

There are, of course, obvious implications here for pastors. If William Willimon is right that Christians are indeed among ‘the last close readers left in this culture’ (and that is a significant ‘if’), then ‘a major task of pastors is to assist congregations in reading carefully in order to align ourselves to a text, in order to submit and bend ourselves to the complex redescription of reality that is Scripture’.

The best of the alternatives may mean taking on a new look:

snob

The Catholic Fantastic of Chesterton and Tolkien

Ralph Wood has a good article on Chesterton and Tolkien in today’s First Things in which he praises Alison Milbank’s Chesterton and Tolkien As Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real. Here’s a taste:

Unlike Coleridge and the Romantics, however, Tolkien and Chesterton never grant godlike status to artists and thinkers as having the power to invent their own self-enclosed universe. On the contrary, they share a deep Thomistic regard for the primacy of being: for things as they are perceived by the senses. Like Kant, they confess the difficulty of moving from the phenomenal to the noumenal realm of things-in-themselves. Yet, unlike him, they do not despair over the seemingly impassable gap between the inner and the outer, the mental and the natural; instead, they reveal that the world is not dreadfully dead (as we have believed since Descartes and Newton) but utterly alive and awaiting our free transformation of it. The universe that has been made dissonant also requires reenchantment, therefore, in order for us to participate in an otherness that is not finally cacophony but symphony, a complex interlocking of likenesses and differences that form an immensely complex but finally redemptive Whole. The doubleness of all things is cause for rejoicing, it follows, rather than lamentation.

As readers we are able to experience Treebeard at two levels: On the one hand, he is patently an aesthetic invention, a fictional creature. Both Chesterton and Tolkien constantly draw attention to the created character of their work, reminding us that it belongs to secondary and not primarily reality: it is a constructed thing to be enjoyed as such. Yet having encountered this fantastic tree with human features, readers can no longer look upon real trees as mere objects meant only for our manipulation. On the contrary, we can now envision all trees as analogical actualities, as transcendent symbols that participate in the reality that they signify, as having likenesses to us despite their differences from us, and thus as linking natural things with both human and divine things—and perhaps also with things demonic. It is not a long leap, for instance, from Treebeard to the trees in the Garden of Eden.

Chesterton and Tolkien have not autonomously invented their own imaginative worlds so much as they have reordered the existing world in accordance with their fundamentally Aristotelian/Thomistic perception of it. Their common conviction is that everything has its own entelechy, its own end within itself that pushes it toward completion and fulfillment within a larger, indeed a final telos.

You can read the full article here.

Biography in Brief – Aquinas

G. K. Chesterton’s biographical portrait of Aquinas, Saint Thomas Aquinas – “The Dumb Ox” (New York: Doubleday, 1933/1956), is masterful. Aquinas, medieval Christianity’s most significant figure, is brought to life by Chesterton who harnesses his knowledge of St. Francis to provide a concise and useful comparison between the two theologians.

Though far from being any authority at all on Aquinas, Chesterton has given us arguably the most accessible introduction to Thomas of Aquinas that we have. Etienne Gilson, a leading Aquinas scholar has noted regarding Chesterton’s book, ‘I consider it as being without possible comparison the best book ever written on St. Thomas. Nothing short of genius can account for such an achievement … Chesterton was one of the deepest thinkers who ever existed; he was deep because he was right; and he could not help being right; but he could not either help being modest and charitable, so he left it to those who could understand him to know that he was right, and deep’.

A quote:

Of the personal habits that go with the personal physique, we have also a few convincing and confirming impressions. When he was not sitting still, reading a book, he walked round and round the cloisters and walked fast and even furiously, a very characteristic action of men who fight their battles in the mind. Whenever he was interrupted, he was very polite and more apologetic than the apologizer. But there was that about him, which suggested that he was rather happier when he was not interrupted. He was ready to stop his truly Peripatetic tramp: but we feel that when he resumed it, he walked all the faster.

Chesterton on original sin

‘Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved. Some followers of the Rev. R. J. Campbell, in their almost too fastidious spirituality, admit divine sinlessness, which they cannnot see even in their dreams. But they essentially deny human sin, which they can see in the street. The strongest saints and the strongest sceptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and Man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.’ – Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 19.

Chesterton on crime

‘You may think a crime horrible because you could never commit it. I think it horrible because I could commit it. You think of it as something like an eruption of Vesuvius; but that would not really be so terrible as this house catching on fire.’ – G. K. Chesterton, G. K. The Penguin Complete Father Brown (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), 587.