Some stuff on the stove

wood-stove

Shouldn’t Baptist churches retrieve the practice of venerating the saints, that is, engaging in corporate worship acts designed not to worship the saints, but to remember, honor, learn from, and celebrate saints from our Baptist family and from other Christian communions? Until we regularly include commemoration of the saints in our worship celebrations, we will continue to neglect the opportunity to give proper value to those from our past who have borne courageous witness to faithful discipleship. Commemorative acts done in our Sunday morning services would provide a suitable accompaniment for the tradition some have already developed as part of their Vacation Bible School program, in which stories are told of great spiritual leaders worthy of emulation … [HT: Steven Harmon]

[Image: from Old Picture of the Day]

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]

‘Read the old …’

Ben Myers’ latest post, Reading and Progress (which is a wonderful follow-up to his post on writing), reminded me of CS Lewis’ fine ‘Introduction’ to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation: De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, and particularly of Lewis’ advice to ‘read the old’:

‘There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.

Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why – the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?” – lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

I myself was first led into reading the Christian classics, almost accidentally, as a result of my English studies. Some, such as Hooker, Herbert, Traherne, Taylor and Bunyan, I read because they are themselves great English writers; others, such as Boethius, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Dante, because they were “influences.” George Macdonald I had found for myself at the age of sixteen and never wavered in my allegiance, though I tried for a long time to ignore his Christianity. They are, you will note, a mixed bag, representative of many Churches, climates and ages. And that brings me to yet another reason for reading them. The divisions of Christendom are undeniable and are by some of these writers most fiercely expressed. But if any man is tempted to think – as one might be tempted who read only con- temporaries – that “Christianity” is a word of so many meanings that it means nothing at all, he can learn beyond all doubt, by stepping out of his own century, that this is not so. Measured against the ages “mere Christianity” turns out to be no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible. I know it, indeed, to my cost. In the days when I still hated Christianity, I learned to recognise, like some all too familiar smell, that almost unvarying something which met me, now in Puritan Bunyan, now in Anglican Hooker, now in Thomist Dante. It was there (honeyed and floral) in Francois de Sales; it was there (grave and homely) in Spenser and Walton; it was there (grim but manful) in Pascal and Johnson; there again, with a mild, frightening, Paradisial flavour, in Vaughan and Boehme and Traherne. In the urban sobriety of the eighteenth century one was not safe – Law and Butler were two lions in the path. The supposed “Paganism” of the Elizabethans could not keep it out; it lay in wait where a man might have supposed himself safest, in the very centre of The Faerie Queene and the Arcadia. It was, of course, varied; and yet – after all – so unmistakably the same; recognisable, not to be evaded, the odour which is death to us until we allow it to become life: “An air that kills From yon far country blows.”

We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the divisions of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity. I know, for I saw it; and well our enemies know it. That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age. It is not enough, but it is more than you had thought till then. Once you are well soaked in it, if you then venture to speak, you will have an amusing experience. You will be thought a Papist when you are actually reproducing Bunyan, a Pantheist when you are quoting Aquinas, and so forth. For you have now got on to the great level viaduct which crosses the ages and which looks so high from the valleys, so low from the mountains, so narrow compared with the swamps, and so broad compared with the sheep-tracks …’.

– C.S. Lewis, ‘Introduction’ in On the Incarnation: the treatise De incarnatione Verbi Dei (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993), 3–7.

‘Joy is the serious business of Heaven’

This morning I was at St Margaret’s in Frankton (part of the Wakatipu Community parish) where I met some wonderful folk, resisted going fishing, and preached on Luke 15:1–10. The sermon was partly inspired by these words on joy by CS Lewis, and those of Karl Barth on the miracle of the love of God:

‘I do not think that the life of Heaven bears any analogy to play or dance in respect of frivolity. I do think that while we are in this ‘valley of tears,’ cursed with labour, hemmed round with necessities, tripped up with frustrations, doomed to perpetual plannings, puzzlings, and anxieties, certain qualities that must belong to the celestial condition have no chance to get through, can project no image of themselves, except in activities which, for us here and now, are frivolous. For surely we must suppose the life of the blessed to be an end in itself, indeed The End: to be utterly spontaneous; to be the complete reconciliation of boundless freedom with order – with the most delicately adjusted, supple, intricate, and beautiful order? How can you find any image of this in the ‘serious’ activities either of our natural or of our (present) spiritual life? – either in our precarious and heart-broken affections or in the Way which is always, in some degree, a via crucis?: No, Malcolm. It is only in our ‘hours-off,’ only in our moments of permitted festivity, that we find an analogy. Dance and game are frivolous, unimportant down here; for ‘down here’ is not their natural place. Here, they are a moment’s rest from the life we were placed here to live. But in this world everything is upside down. That which, if it could be prolonged here, would be a truancy, is likest that which in a better country is the End of ends. Joy is the serious business of Heaven’. – CS Lewis, Prayer: Letters to Malcolm (London: Collins, 1977), 94–5.

‘God’s loving is concerned with a seeking and creation of fellowship without any reference to an existing aptitude or worthiness on the part of the loved. God’s love is not merely not conditioned by any reciprocity of love. It is also not conditioned by any worthiness to be loved on the part of the loved, by any existing capacity for union or fellowship on his side … The love of God always throws a bridge over a crevasse. It is always the light shining out of darkness. In His revelation it seeks and creates fellowship where there is no fellowship and no capacity for it, where the situation concerns a being which is quite different from God, a creature and therefore alien, a sinful creature and therefore hostile. It is this alien and hostile other that God loves … This does not mean that we can call the love of God a blind love. But what He sees when He loves is that which is altogether distinct from Himself, and as such lost in itself, and without Him abandoned to death. That He throws a bridge out from Himself to this abandoned one, that He is light in the darkness, is the miracle of the almighty love of God’. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1 (ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance; trans. T.H.L. Parker, et al.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957), 278.

Here’s how I concluded:

If these two parables teach us anything at all about repentance, it is that the whole of our life is ‘finally and forever out of our hands and that if we ever live again, our life will be entirely the gift of some gracious other’ [Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace, 39]. The Gospel is the announcement that God finds us not in the garden of improvement but in the desert of death. It’s precisely from death that we are brought home. And these parables are about coming home. They speak to us about the nature of lostness, and about the necessity of experiencing lostness if we are to experience homecoming. ‘Weary or bitter or bewildered as we may be, God is faithful, He lets us wander so we will know what it means to come home’ [Marilynne Robinson, Home, 102]. So they teach us something about the nature of God.

They also give us a hint … of what history is about: that history is the time that God creates in order to find and to restore the lost. And, finally, these parables give us a hint about how that time will end, offering us every hope to believe that our stories do not end at the grave. Even hell is no obstacle, for this is a God who, in Jesus Christ, comes not only into the far country in search of us, but who also descends into the very depths of hell in order to carry us home. This is the God of relentless grace – the Hound of Heaven – and it is he and not death or any human decision who will decide how history ends. This is what it means to call God the judge of the living and the dead. Like the good shepherd in Ezekiel 34 who searches for the lost and rescues them from all the places where they are scattered, Jesus’ work is not done until all come home. He keeps seeking the lost, even in the grave. He seeks those who have refused his love. He seeks those who have abandoned his love. He seeks those who have never known of his love. He seeks those for whom life has ended prematurely. In Christ, there is no such thing as empty time, or ‘dead’ time, for all time is filled with Christ’s lordship over the living and the dead, and filled with experience of the Spirit who is the giver of life …

And here in Luke 15 we are given a picture of the nature of God, an insight into the purpose of history, and, I believe, a glimpse of how history ends, of how your life ends and my life ends – of how the lives of those we love and of those who have made life hell for us, will end – with celebration, with a banquet, with the extravagant joy with which God welcomes the found and eats with them, … with homecoming.

The New Statesman on ‘God – what do we believe?’

The latest New Statesman is a special issue on God and belief. Some of the more interesting pieces are:

Philip Pullman on CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien

In a recent interview, Philip Pullman not only properly reminds us of the challenges of talking to fundamentalists ‘You can’t communicate with people who know they’ve got all the answers’ but also makes one of the most ridiculous and ignorant statements I’ve read in a long time:

‘I dislike his Narnia books because of the solution he offers to the great questions of human life: is there a God, what is the purpose, all that stuff, which he really does engage with pretty deeply, unlike Tolkien who doesn’t touch it at all. ”The Lord of the Rings” is essentially trivial. Narnia is essentially serious, though I don’t like the answer Lewis comes up with. If I was doing it at all, I was arguing with Narnia. Tolkien is not worth arguing with.’

You can read the full interview here.

For those in, or near enough to, St Andrews, Dr Grant Macaskill (who is not only a really great guy and an engaging speaker, but also a good musician) will be speaking on Christianity and the Philip Pulman novels on Sunday the 16th of December at 6pm, Martyr’s Church in North Street. The title of his talk, ‘Killing God Softly: Does “The Golden Compass” undermine Christianity?’ For more information, contact Matt.

Is God democratic?

In his essay, Why Democracy, Stanley Fish explores, among other things, the relationship between God and democracy. He writes: “Is God democratic?” That one’s easy. God, like Hobbes’ sovereign, requires obedience, and those who worship him must subordinate their personal desires to his will. (Here the Abraham/Isaac story is paradigmatic.) His rule, therefore, is the antithesis of democracy, which elevates individual choice to a position of primacy. That doesn’t mean, however, that God frowns on democratic states or requires a theocratic one or has any political opinions at all. (On the other hand, someone who, like Walt Whitman, believes that God is not a separate being but resides in each of us might conclude that democracy is the deity’s favored form of government).’

I am reminded here of two words: one from CS Lewis and the other from (surprise, surprise) PT Forsyth. Lewis writes,

I am a democrat [believer in democracy] because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that every one deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true. . . . I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost. Much less a nation. . . .The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.

And from Forsyth:

Democracy is but a half-truth. It must have a King. Aristocracy is just as true and as needful. It builds on an authority in things no less than democracy builds on an equality. The free personality of democracy is only possible under a free authority. The free soul is only possible in a free King … There must always be a House of Moral Lords. There must always be leaders and led, prophets and people, apostles and members, genius and its circle, and elect and a called. Ah! democratic and aristocratic principles are both deep in the foundations of our Christian faith.

Democracy is, after all, only ‘the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half the time’ (E.B. White)

Blogging around

Kevin has a nice post on Barth’s ongoing legacy, including a quote from Neuhaus in which he recalls Jarislav Pelikan’s identification of ‘the most influential theological mind of the past two hundred years’ as John Henry Newman. Why? ‘Newman’s thought has been received into the tradition of the Catholic Church, whereas Schleiermacher and Harnack, brilliant though they were, wrote against the tradition, and Barth was, as he claimed to be, a “church theologian” but a church theologian without a church capable of bearing his contribution through successive generations. Pelikan understood, as Wilken said at Yale, that it is orthodoxy that is the most consequential, the most adaptable, the most enduring.”‘ Read the full post here.

Byron notes some great words from C.S. Lewis on forgiveness.

Travis generously shares with us his notes from Eberhard Busch’s fascinating lecture at Princeton entitled, ‘A Swiss Voice: The Campaign of the Swiss Government Against the Voice of Karl Barth During the Second World War’. In the lecture, Busch introduces us to some largely ignored documentation from the Swiss and German governments during WWII. He writes,

‘The Swiss government slowly began tightening its grip on critical publication, classifying some of Barth’s lectures as political instigation. Organs of the Swiss government even described Barth as a ‘theologian of hate,’ and he was accused of political agitation against Germany under the cover of religion. The two kingdoms doctrine was even marshaled against Barth, and he was told that he could say whatever he wanted about theology but that he couldn’t give political lectures under the guise of ecclesial style. The publication of certain of Barth’s published lectures and booklets was forbidden. Barth contested these things, arguing that the theologians of the Reformed church in the tradition of Calvin and Zwingli have not only the right but the duty to speak politically. When his appeal failed, Barth was unable to publish or lecture on the political situation in Switzerland. Barth’s phone was tapped, and his correspondence was monitored and censured. In one instance, one of Barth’s letters, including a picture of him in his military uniform bearing the caption ‘Resist the evil with all means,’ was confiscated’.

After spending an afternoon sifting through an ‘impressive pile’ of his old sermons (30 worth worth!), Jim asks ‘When is a sermon past its use by date?‘ After reminding us that his hero James Denney claimed to have burned all his sermons when he left Broughty Ferry in 1897 (‘but fortunately there’s still a few hundred of them so he must only have burned the ones he thought unpreachable elsewhere’), Jim invites us to reflect on two fair questions: 1. What criteria should be used to decide if a sermon preached in the past is worth keeping now? And 2. Should an old sermon ever be re-cycled?

Employing Barth’s help, Michael encourages us to see things differently.

Scott announces the start of a mini-series on the Trinitarian thought of Henry of Ghent. He asks, somewhat provocatively, ‘We know there are three persons, and one ‘substance’/’ousia’ from Scripture and our orthodox Creeds, but is there anything that we could say that might account for why there are three, and not say five divine persons? Or even, why not say there is a potential infinity of divine persons (on some contestable account of the deification of believers)? You get my point. Why three divine persons and what makes it that there are three, no more and no less?’

The ABC’s ‘Religion Report’ makes available via podcast a recent discussion on the Australian Christian Lobby’s invitation to election candidates to justify why they are ‘worthy of the “so-called” Christian vote’.

While on podcasts, there’s a download available here of ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus’ by Ludwig Wittgenstein, and this one on ‘The Emptiness of Existence’ by Arthur Schopenhauer.

CS Lewis on reading theology

From Lewis’ introduction to Athanasius’ De Incarnatione Verbi Dei:

‘For my own part I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand’.

How true!

CS Lewis on Sex

‘Our warped natures, the devils who tempt us, and all the contemporary propaganda for lust, combine to make us feel that the desires we are resisting are so ‘natural,’ so ‘healthy,’ and so reasonable, that it is almost perverse and abnormal to resist them. Poster after poster, film after film, novel after novel, associate the idea of sexual indulgence with the ideas of health, normality, youth, frankness, and good humour. Now this association is a lie. Like all powerful lies, it is based on a truth … that sex in itself (apart from the excesses and obsessions that have grown round it) is ‘normal’ and ‘healthy,’ and all the rest of it. The lie consists in the suggestion that any sexual act to which you are tempted at the moment is also healthy and normal. Now this, on any conceivable view, and quite apart from Christianity, leads to impotence, disease, jealousies, lies, concealment, and everything that is the reverse of health, good humour, and frankness. For any happiness, even in this world, quite a lot of restraint is going to be necessary; so the claim made by every desire, when it is strong, to be healthy and reasonable, counts for nothing. Every sane and civilized man must have some set of principles by which he chooses to reject some of his desires and to permit others. One man does this on Christian principles, another on hygienic principles, another on sociological principles. The real conflict is not between Christianity and ‘nature,’ but between Christian principles and other principles in the control of ‘nature,’ for ‘nature’ (in the sense of natural desire) will have to be controlled anyway, unless you are going to ruin your whole life.’ (CS Lewis, Mere Christianity, Chapter 5)