Friday, November 28, 2014

Persevering with Gower

Four years ago I posted a piece on perseverance in reading. I thought about that essay a lot during my first three days with John Gower’s Confessio Amantis. The theme wasn’t grabbing me, and Gower’s Middle English seemed surprisingly opaque, even though I don’t have trouble understanding Chaucer or Malory. In spite of these roadblocks, I reminded myself of all the reasons to keep making my way through a book that I wasn’t enjoying. I remembered my pact with myself and fought the temptation to give up. I thought about the calendar and reminded myself that if I read only 5% of the book every day (just about right for one good, hefty walk), I’d be done in just twenty days. I asked myself several times why I had put Gower on my list in the first place (maybe a mention by C. S. Lewis? Maybe Gower’s appearance as a character in Shakespeare’s Pericles?) I kept up the task partly by dint of will and partly because once I was out on a fifty-minute walk with nothing else to read, I figured I might as well. And then something funny happened on the fourth day: I started enjoying it.

The Confession of a Lover is an long poem in a prologue and eight books relating a conversation between a young man in love and a priest of Venus. The priest tells the lover he must confess his sin and leads him through a systematic examination of the Seven Big Ones: Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony, and Lust. He illustrates each sin with stories from the Bible and from pagan mythology and then asks his protégé to confess his misdeeds. It might surprise many of my contemporaries to find a medieval author using a priest of Venus and stories of Greek gods to teach Christian virtue, but this is the medieval way. As Lewis explains in The Discarded Image, the medieval mind saw all the universe of material objects, spiritual substances, ethics, literature, science, mathematics, history, and religion as a unified system. The priest of the pagan goddess of love teaching Christianity? Why not? An outline of Christian ethics that includes a description of alchemy? Of course! A systematic exploration of sin that takes a long diversion to recount the teachings of Aristotle? For a medieval writer, how could it be any other way? Once Gower got started on an epic poem, he couldn’t stop until he had found a place for everything in the universe. Lewis again: “There was nothing medieval people liked better, or did better, than sorting out and tidying up. Of all our modern inventions I suspect that they would most have admired the card index.”

So now the theme makes sense to me: that structure on which Gower builds his particular encyclopedia  of stories, descriptions of the planets, correspondences between elements and temperaments, the history of the Catiline conspiracy, and all the other parts of a complete medieval education. And the language has become almost crystal clear. (Milky quartz is a crystal, right?) Here’s a sample:
For whan the welle of pité is
Thurgh coveitise of worldes good
Defouled with schedinge of blod,
The remenant of folk aboute
Unethe stonden eny doute
To werre ech other and to slee.
So is it al noght worth a stree,
The charité wherof we prechen,
For we do nothing as we techen.
And thus the blinde conscience
Of pes hath lost thilke evidence
Which Crist upon this erthe tawhte.
Once reimmersed in the cadences of Middle English, I remember again the patterns of changes – the changes of vocabulary (unethe = scarcely or hardly), changes of spelling (tawhte = taught), changes of pronunciation (stree = straw) and changes of grammar (werre ech other = war upon each other). Now I’m almost through, and I’ll be glad I stuck with it. The next time I read some casual remark by Lewis about Gower, I’ll think, “Oh, yeah. I’ve read him.” The next time I read Pericles, I’ll recognize that the tetrameter of Gower’s lines comes right from his most respected work. And the next time I read The Lord of the Rings, I’ll remember that Tolkien drew the name of Middle Earth right from the pages of Confessio Amantis.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Very Superstitious

It’s my intention on these pages to celebrate good books. So I tend to gush enthusiastic approval in my reviews and reports. The last thing I want to do – OK, it’s actually about the fifth-to-last thing I want to do. To start again: nearly the last thing I want to do is complain about Thomas Hardy or Lord Byron or Jane Austen so much that someone might decide, based on my inept babbling, never to read the deep sentiments of such great writers expressed in their beautifully chosen words. So before I pick on Will Durant a little, let me aver that I look forward to my yearly encounter with this historian more than I do almost any other item on my plan. After virtually every page of Durant’s 10,000-page monument, I could think, “I wouldn’t want not to have read that page in my life.” Among the other authors on my list, I could probably say that only about Dickens and Boswell.

Durant isn’t perfect, though. I’m still glad I read pages 232-234 of volume VI of The Story of Civilization, but I wish I could talk with him about them. The author’s subject is the context of superstition in which late-medieval science grew, and I think for once he missed the mark. I could wish that he had acknowledged, for instance, that alchemy wasn’t just an absurd belief in nonsense contrary to all evidence, that it involved analysis and experimentation and actually helped lead to the modern understanding of chemistry. But that isn’t what bothers me the most. After all, maybe he tells that alchemical story on one of the other 9,997 pages. What irks me is Durant’s failure to distinguish two distinct rationales for opposition to alchemy, sorcery, astrology, and the like.

Neither Durant nor medieval Church prelates wanted people to believe what isn’t true. (Granted, I can align their thinking only at this generic level, since Durant and medieval Church prelates didn’t agree on the details as to what is true.) But Durant writes for a few pages as if defense of truth were the only reason to combat what we now call superstition. Surely any member of the Christian Church who believes in the Devil can reasonably oppose Satan worship on the grounds of it being an evil practice. Of course Durant must have seen this obvious notion. But he doesn’t acknowledge it in this passage, so I came away disappointed in his recounting of this story.

The trouble begins for me where Durant praises a handful of medievals for rejecting the legitimacy of sorcery. “The Dark Ages had been comparatively enlightened in this respect: Saints Boniface and Agobard denounced the belief in sorcery as sinful and ridiculous.” The “belief in,” not the “practice of.” On the next page he complains of inconsistency in authors he must have considered less enlightened. For instance,
Pope John XXII issued powerful blasts against alchemy (1317) and magic (1327); he mourned what he thought was the increasing prevalence of sacrifices to demons, pacts with the Devil, and the making of images, rings, and potions for magical purposes; . . . but even he implied a belief in their possible efficacy.
It seems not to have occurred to Durant while writing this passage that John XXII very likely blasted alchemy and magic precisely because he believed in their efficacy.

I believe that a lot of charlatans existed in the fourteenth century and that they exist now. I believe that the intentional practice of duping people to believe that a natural occurrence is supernatural is an evil practice. And I believe that blind credulity in supernatural explanations is also an evil. I don’t know that any medieval sorcerer ever brought about an event (say, the arrangement of certain numbers in a magic square) that brought about another event (say, the recovery of another person’s health) through something other than a natural causational connection. But I know that all the succeeding centuries of study of natural causation could never disprove that it did happen. How can the examination of X ever disprove the existence of an independent Y? The study of ornithology doesn’t disprove the existence of Bigfoot; neither does the practice of natural science disprove the legitimacy of sorcery. And Durant’s seeming belief that it does disprove sorcery is itself a kind of superstition.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

All Truth Is God’s Truth

I think I’ve used that title in these posts before. The idea lies deep within me, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it rose up (at least) twice in the last four years. The notion has brought me a lot of comfort ever since I learned that Augustine’s acknowledgement of it made the study of non-Christian literature acceptable in the medieval Christian world. In fact, I act on this understanding virtually very day of my life; my reading project wouldn’t be possible if Augustine hadn’t taught that all truth is God’s truth.

The Bishop of Hippo spells out the proposition in On Christian Doctrine. But in his Confessions, he lives it out. “Let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master,” he says in bk. II of On Christian Doctrine. In his spiritual autobiography, he restates the idea with a figure involving food:
But Thou, O my God, hadst already taught me by wonderful and secret ways, and therefore I believe that Thou taughtest me, because it is truth, nor is there besides Thee any teacher of truth, where or whencesoever it may shine upon us. Of Thyself therefore had I now learned, that neither ought any thing to seem to be spoken truly, because eloquently; nor therefore falsely, because the utterance of the lips is inharmonious; nor, again, therefore true, because rudely delivered; nor therefore false, because the language is rich; but that wisdom and folly are as wholesome and unwholesome food; and adorned or unadorned phrases as courtly or country vessels; either kind of meats may be served up in either kind of dishes.
And he goes on with concrete examples. Cicero, he explains in book III of the Confessions, taught him to love wisdom – not the wisdom of this philosophy or that, but Wisdom itself (or as Augustine would have put it later, Himself). Later in the book, he explains that the Platonists taught him that God is incorporeal and even taught him to revere the Word. These lessons provided stepping stones on Augustine’s path to Christian faith, so how could he not later approve of Christians studying the pagan classics?

I’m sure some Christians then (as do many Christians now) didn’t see how people without the enlightenment of God come upon truths that would benefit believers, much less help lead a sinner like Augustine to Christ. Augustine’s explanation is that all the faculties of knowledge come from God; how could those who seek truth using God’s given tools not find some? But also, not all truth is spiritual truth, even though it might all be applied to spiritual understading. The Platonists Augustine learned so much from could never, he points out, have discovered that the Word humbly left his divine station and came to earth to die. But that doesn’t mean that pagan astronomers can’t learn about the movements of the planets.

This last particular point played a significant role in Augustine’s conversion away from the Manichean religion. Natural philosophers had learned astronomical motions well enough to predict eclipses, so their outlook must be essentially correct, he reasoned. But Mani, the founder of the gnostic heresy that both charmed and troubled Augustine for so long, taught propositions about the planets in conflict with those of the scientists. If he’s wrong about the skies, and his religious doctrine rests on his planetary system, Augustine concluded, Mani’s religious doctrine must be wrong. (Isn’t it interesting that astronomy would cause another significant religious debate a mellennium later!)

The most heartwarming detail concerning pagan philosophy I came across in my meeting with Augustine this year didn’t have to do with a particular teaching, but rather with a particular teacher. When Augustine started asking skeptical questions about Manicheism, his friends all told him that Faustus would have the answers that would satisfy him. But Faustus couldn’t answer the questions either.
When I proposed [these questions] to be considered and discussed, he, so far modestly, shrunk from the burthen. For he knew that he knew not these things, and was not ashamed to confess it. For he was not one of those talking persons, many of whom I had endured, who undertook to teach me these things, and said nothing. But this man had a heart, though not right towards Thee, yet neither altogether treacherous to himself. For he was not altogether ignorant of his own ignorance, nor would he rashly be entangled in a dispute, whence he could neither retreat nor extricate himself fairly. Even for this I liked him the better.
Instead of laughing or railing, Augustine admired Faustus’s humility. At that moment, Augustine held people as more important than answers, a priority we all need reminding of.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Whose Stuff?

Americans are addicted to things. All kinds of things. Especially big things, big tech-y things. And especially if they keep us from having to interact with other people. We love our cars, for instance, for all these reasons. We want (at least the commercials tell us we want it) plenty of room in our cars. But we want don’t want to spend too much on the gas for that giant thing; that’s where our faith in tech comes in. The advances of engineering also give us power windows that block out the noise of the world, so we can pretend that no one else matters. We only roll these windows down at fast-food restaurants, but we don’t really want to look at or interact with that college student taking our credit card (tech again) and handing us the super-sized value meal (and there’s size again).

If Christians have had an audible response to this addiction (other than “Woo hoo! Where can I get me some of that?”), it’s often been to deny the value of material possessions. Medieval Europe had monks who took vows of poverty and bishops who lived in palaces and ate on silver plates handed to them by the servants who kissed their gold rings. But what if material things were to be enjoyed without being craved? What if God wanted us to treat the goods of the world somewhat the way He wants us to treat other people, neither renouncing their value nor obsessing about controlling them?

Augustine sets out a very healthy philosophy of stuff in the Confessions. In the last post, I mentioned the importance of “turning” in the Bishop of Hippo’s autobiographical journey. Augustine says people basically live in one of two attitudes: turned toward God and turned away from God. But people don’t just turn away from God without turning toward something else; we need love and comfort and affirmation, so we have to look for them in something. If we don’t look for our meaning in the Creator, we look for it in the creation. But the things of the created world will ultimately disappoint: how could they possibly live up to the promise of substituting for God? “Turn us, O God of Hosts, show us Thy countenance, and we shall be whole. For whithersoever the soul of man turns itself, unless toward Thee, it is riveted upon sorrows, yea though it is riveted on things beautiful.” (Confessions, IV.15)

But notice that Augustine says that the things of the world may be beautiful. We cannot reasonably deny the value of the goods of this world. They’re “goods,” after all. Our only sane choice is to recognize their value and purpose while acknowledging the surpassing value of their Maker. God wants us to “have all things” and to “think on whatever is lovely,” just not at the expense of knowing Him.
For there is an attractiveness in beautiful bodies, in gold and silver, and all things; and in bodily touch, sympathy hath much influence, and each other sense hath his proper object answerably tempered. Worldly honour hath also its grace, and the power of overcoming, and of mastery; whence springs also the thirst of revenge. But yet, to obtain all these, we may not depart from Thee, O Lord, nor decline from Thy law. (Confessions, II.10)
We have to interact with the world, but in doing so, we have to love, not the things, but God through the things.
If bodies please thee, praise God on occasion of them, and turn back thy love upon their Maker; lest in these things which please thee, thou displease. . . . Him let us love, Him let us love: He made these, nor is He far off. For He did not make them, and so depart, but they are of Him, and in Him. See there He is, where truth is loved. . . . The good that you love is from Him; but it is good and pleasant through reference to Him, and justly shall it be embittered, because unjustly is any thing loved which is from Him, if He be forsaken for it. (Confessions, IV.18)
The best example of this via media – loving God through a proper appreciation of things rather than either denying the value of the created world or bowing down to it – comes from the life of Augustine himself. Trained as a master of rhetoric, the author of the Confessions gave up his career as a courtroom advocate, renouncing his worldly training and denying the power of language. “They’re just words,” he says. But then didn’t he turn right around and use his gift for words to teach the next sixteen centuries of Christians this very lesson – and many others besides? He who would find rhetoric must lose it.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

When a non-Answer Is an Answer

When St. Augustine wrote his Confessions, he had a lot of questions. He can’t even start confessing without asking whether he needs to confess guilt for being self-centered when he was a baby. So, after a brief prayer, the books begins with questions. As another example, later in the book, he ponders time. What is now? he asks. By the time we say the word, now has become the past and so no longer is now.

Questions about life, questions about matter and substance, about friendship, about relationship to God, about the senses. Augustine almost systematically sets out the problems of each branch of philosophy and theology. He opens up the book of aesthetics by asking, Why do we enjoy sad plays? We usually avoid the feeling of being miserable, so why do we seek it and even pay for it by going to a show? We can’t really explain the strange habit by saying that we feel bad not for ourselves but for the characters on stage, because characters don’t actually suffer and we don’t get up out of our seats to help them. (Although I did hear a story once of a many at an opera who yelled out during the performance, “Somebody help! The soprano is murdering the baritone!”)

Questions and more questions. Joining theology and ontology (which happens when you believe in the Creation), Augustine asks how God can come into him when he cannot contain God. And aren’t you already in me, he asks, since you made me? The last realization reveals a whole new line of questioning. When I went away from you, where exactly did I go? I have existence only because You created me and sustain me, so You are always present with me. How then can I have left You? I turned to other things in my futile search for joy, but You made all those things as well. So how is it that I was apart from You?

Augustine has an answer to this conundrum about departing from God in a world which God fills with his sustaining power. He doesn’t say this explicitly, but it seems to me that he explains moving away from God by exchanging the notion of moving place to place with the notion of turning in place. I can say that the word turn occurs frequently in the Confessions. Those who abandon God, he says, “turn their back to Thee, and not their face.” He confesses to turning toward created things for satisfaction and describes the situation as having “my back to the light, and my face to the things enlightened.”

Another answer comes in Augustine’s exploration of his motive for stealing some peaches when he was a teenager. The philosophers say people do evil things for some perceived good. But what good did I get out of stealing those peaches? he asks. I didn’t want the peaches and threw them away after a couple of bites. Did I really enjoy this misdeed because it was evil? Although he seems to break with traditional philosophy for a moment and say that he indeed was perverse enough to love evil and not good, he eventually succeeds in finding an illusory good in the theft: the boys with him approved of the act, and the shared experience gave him companionship and affirmation. This insight about the communal rewards of sin may have led him to describe unbelievers as citizens of the City of Man in his other most famous book, a book named for a rival city.

But the great teacher (the most influential Christian teacher since the Apostles?) didn’t always have answers to all of his questions. “What is time? . . . If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not.” But even without all the answers – in fact because he lacked the answers – the act of questioning itself led him to a conclusion. In asking all these questions in order to find out what he needs to confess, Augustine finds that he needs to confess that he is a man who cannot answer every question.

So ultimately, the book is not about confessing guilt. Whatever may have been Augustine’s first intention in writing, the Confessions ends up an admission of frailty and an acknowledgement of God’s grace. It can’t be about confessing guilt: Augustine even “confesses” all the sins he hasn’t committed. “To Thy grace I ascribe also whatsoever I have not done of evil; for what might I not have done, who even loved a sin for its own sake? Yea, all I confess to have been forgiven me; both what evils I committed by my own wilfulness, and what by Thy guidance I committed not.” Have I confessed that? I’ll leave that question unanswered.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Mute Inglorious Miltons, Arise!

Thursday I began my third reading of Augustine’s Confessions. Among the many trains of thought the magnificent spiritual autobiography elicited in me, longing for Christian eloquence held a prominent position. “Where are the Augustines of today?” I asked, not for the first time in my life. “Where are the Miltons? The Johnsons? The Lewises? Where is Christian eloquence?”

I woke up to find that today marks the 340th anniversary of Milton’s death, and the question arose again. It’s not an entirely fair question, of course. No period other than Milton’s had a Milton. But I’d love to have a Christian culture that values poetry and strives to rise to Milton’s level even if it only reaches halfway. Shoot for the stars; you might reach the moon.

No physical reason precludes a broad river of eloquent Christian authors or an ocean of literate, thoughtful Christians to receive them; the aptitude runs latent in our DNA. Thomas Gray wondered if some “mute inglorious Milton” lay in his churchyard; if so, only demographic conditions kept him silenced. I have to look for a sociological cause for the dearth, and consequently I have to conclude that today’s Christians aren’t known for producing great writers because today’s Church doesn’t value writing. Asked where the C. S. Lewises of today are, Lewis scholar Alister McGrath replied that the Church had to start training children to grow up to be the Lewises of tomorrow. The State sure won’t do it. American public schools no longer expect young people to spell correctly because they don’t want to stifle the kiddos’ creativity. (The plural of kiddo has no e. I looked it up. After all, I didn’t want to pull a Quayle in the middle of a diatribe on orthography. Oh, and by the way, while I’m already in a parenthesis, I’ll extend it to say that if you’re a Christian and don’t know who Thomas Gray is or that he had some thoughts in a churchyard or why he chose Milton as his exemplar, your situation proves my point. The government and, much more importantly, the Church failed you.)

I could say it all again with regard to art, architecture, and music composition. Oh, sure, today’s American churches all have music. But popular-style Christian composers are supported by record sales, not by the offering plate. And creativity is most definitely frowned upon in the American Church as a whole. I love some contemporary Christian worship music (I’m actually listening to some as I type), but I know too much Christian music from the last two millennia to be fooled into thinking that future music historians will see the last thirty years of CCM as – I can’t finish the sentence. Future music historians won’t even be aware of today’s Christian music. It will flit through the lives of hundreds of millions of people and yet leave no mark on history deeper than that of a feather brushed against a stone. I like Matt Redman’s songs just fine. But Dan Quayle is no John Kennedy, and Matt Redman is no J. S. Bach.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Faith Matters

In 1946, Evelyn Waugh wrote:
I believe that you can only leave God out [of a novel] by making your characters pure abstractions. . . . The failure of modern novelists since and including James Joyce is one of presumption and exorbitance. They are not content with the artificial figures which hitherto passed so gracefully as men and women. They try to represent the whole human mind and soul and yet omit its determining character – that of being God’s creature with a defined purpose.
The same can be said for biography. I’ve read many a book about a real person – not a character, not an abstraction – that shies away not only from spiritual assessment of its subject but even from outlining the spiritual beliefs, opinions, or outlook of the historical personage in question. Modern and postmodern public discourse, in the United States anyway, generally avoids religious talk, originally perhaps out of polite recognition that arguments on the topic tend to cause more rancor than enlightenment, but ultimately, it seems, from the mistaken belief that religion just isn’t worth talking about.

What a relief and delight to have found a biographer who knows that faith matters. Jon Meacham’s Franklin and Winston traces the course of the relationship between the two great leaders of twentieth-century English-speaking democracy, revealing several fascinating aspects of each man’s character through comparison and the details of their interaction concerning World War II. Who knew (not I) that Churchill lacked self-confidence? But the trait is made clear when, like Dickens’s Mr Twemlow, the Prime Minister constantly worries about whether his hero thinks of him as a friend. On the other side of the duo, Roosevelt’s penchant for cold political maneuvering comes to the fore when, in their first meeting with Joseph Stalin, the American President begins to criticize Churchill in his presence just to crack an ice-breaking smile from the Soviet dictator.

But these three- (or more) dimensional, very concrete personages also had religious views and acted based on or informed by those views, and Meacham is not embarrassed to talk about it. Not that either historical figure shared Meacham’s faith. Jon Meacham is, I believe, a Catholic Christian, while Roosevelt was an Episcopalian (although he didn’t mind occasionally singing hymns with the “Methodys”), and Churchill was, in the author’s words, an “optimistic agnostic.” With deep respect for faith, the author respects faiths different from his own and in turn shows much more respect for the men who held them than would an author who hides religious matters behind an arbitrary screen with the thought that they’re simply irrelevant.

Along with the general descriptions of religious view and practice come many details that might well be kept out of a similar book by a different historian. Roosevelt, for instance, always wanted to conduct a church service and late in life got one opportunity to do so on board a ship. At the first meeting between the two, he and Churchill actually planned a Christian worship service together, the PM choosing the hymns. Both stories get extended treatment. Faith shows up in many other tiny details in the book, from a quotation by C. S. Lewis on friendship to many moments of, offers of, and requests for prayer. The most surprising mention of spiritual matters? Joseph Stalin telling his two counterparts that God would be with the Allied invasion of North Africa.