Saturday, April 30, 2016

Here I Stand

I don’t have a whole lot to say about Martin Luther in this venue. I would understate in calling him a controversial figure; his thoughts and writings created a rift in the Church and in world politics that persists to this day. I’m not a Roman Catholic, but I have zero desire to try in a public forum to persuade any fellow Christian to abandon that Church and to see things my way. And I don’t want to be misconstrued as having that desire. So I don’t want to get into any theological details in this post. My main purpose today is to express my relief concerning Luther’s rhetorical style.

In my posts about Jean Calvin, I’ve made it clear that, quite apart from any particulars of doctrine that I may or may not agree with, his bullying and name-calling wearied me, worried me, and at times offended me. So I finished the Institutes last year with a great sense of release and looked forward to enjoying in Luther a less angry and aggressive presentation of Protestantism. But in my recent study of the Reformation in Will Durant’s history of western civilization, I read that Luther filled his speech and writings with the invective that was standard in his time. My heart sank.

Very pleasantly, though, I’ve discovered in the last couple of weeks that Luther could moderate his abusive language quite well. Maybe Durant read other selections. Maybe the editor of my book purged some of the more offensive language. But I’m just not seeing invective. Yes, he says that the Pope serves Satan’s purposes, but only to the extent that he (Luther) believes Satan to be the source of all untruth, even mistaken notions he himself might espouse from time to time. To an unbeliever, this may not make any sense, but after making a mistake, I would find it much easier dealing with being told that my mistake served Lucifer’s ends than with hearing myself called puerile or insane, as Calvin very frequently does. Hearing that I’ve advanced darkness by my erring ways is painful, to be sure, but at least the observation keeps me on an even level with the person who tells me; we all make mistakes and cause harm now and again. The person who calls me childish or mad, on the other hand, assumes the superior position of the only rational adult in the relationship and thus ends all hope of conversation.

Well, the rest of my many thoughts about the Luther reader I’ve been enjoying get into details I just don’t feel comfortable discussing in a blog. So I should stop. I’ve expressed my relief. I can do no other.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

There Is Good and Bede in Everyone

Last year I read books II and III (of five) of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, and I spent most of my report complaining that The Venerable labeled anyone who didn’t date Easter his way as “rude” and “barbarous.” At times he gave the definite impression that accepting the Roman date of Easter is more important than faith in Christ.

This year, in finishing up Bede’s chronicle, I found to my relief that in books IV and V he (mostly) leaves the issue of Easter behind and got on with the story – or stories. As he gets closer and closer to his own time, the early eighth century, Bede has less and less of a continuous arc to draw and begins simply to tell tales of recent saints. Here is the story of Caedmon, who seemed to have a divine gift for composing song. Here is the story of Wilibrord and the Ewalds – “Black Ewald” and “White Ewald” because of the color of their hair – who took the message of Christ across the water to Frisia. Here are stories of nuns who saw lights showing where they were to be buried and of monks who heard the angels sing as their companions died. Several stories involve dreams and near-death visions; one poor fellow saw a shining figure holding a huge black book recording all of his sins, and I thought of Scrooge and Marley and the ghostly chains they formed.

My favorite story is that of Chad, or Ceadda in the original spelling. Many Americans first learned the meaning of the word “chad” during the debacle of the 2000 Presidential election and can hardly hear the word without thinking of its predecessor, “hanging.” At some point during that drawn-out mess, I heard or read a journalist pointing out the irony of St. Chad, who was also involved in a contested election, back in the 7th century. Through miscommunication or misuse of authority or mis-something, both Chad and a monk named Wilfrid were appointed bishop of Northumbria. They were apparently unaware of each other, and when Wilfrid went to Europe to have his position conferred, Chad meekly stepped into the office he thought he occupied. But when Wilfrid returned to England, Chad stepped down without a whimper and became once again a simple abbot. Wilfrid got the position, but 1300 years later, Chad was still making the news.

I didn’t like everything I saw in Bede this year by any means. He said quite a bit about earning God’s mercy and salvation by good works, and these passages sat especially uneasily with me since I had also started my Luther compilation. And he did have to bring up Easter one last time and explain that his way (i.e. the current pope’s way) of dating Easter was biblical, while the Celts’ way was not. Besides there being no word in the New Testament about a special yearly commemoration of the Resurrection, Bede’s argument seemed to come down to whether the shifting dates followed a ninety-five-year cycle or an eighty-four-year cycle, most definitely a question outside the scope of the biblical text. (Eighty-four years! Silly Celts!) I hear that Pope Francis is considering a uniform date for Easter. I wonder if Bede would consider Francis barbarous.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Faith and College History

With a little extra time in my schedule this spring (I finished Bede in just three days – report coming soon), I’ve been reading Gary Scott Smith’s Faith and the Presidency. I always keep my eye open for books dealing with the history of religion in America, especially the religious views of the Founding Fathers. I’ve heard and read that they were all orthodox Christians. I’ve heard and read that they were all deists. I know that for most of the prominent names, the truth lies somewhere in between. But finding historians interested in scrounging up the evidence for the truth and presenting it in a fair way isn’t easy. To others who share my goal, I can highly recommend The Search for Christian America by Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden. Now I can add Faith and the Presidency to that recommendation.

One reason for the scarcity of the type of book I look for is that it requires that the author have religious beliefs and interests enough like mine to prompt the questions that intrigue me, but that he feel no urgent need to find Washington or Jefferson answering the questions in the same way. Smith appears to be such an author. For each of just eleven United States Presidents (with tantalizing mentions of a few others), Smith offers hundreds of bits of evidence: the endnotes take up more pages than the already substantial text. Through this documentary search, he examines upbringing, preference of worship style, knowledge of the Bible, theology, relations with various religious groups, effect of religion on policy decisions, and more. What did this President believe about Jesus? Did he believe the Bible had in any way a divine origin? Did he believe God was active in the world? Did he believe in the efficacy of prayer? Did he believe in an afterlife? Did he believe in divine judgment? What is the place of religion in government? What is the place of morality in government? Smith answers all these questions honestly but refrains from answering the question, Was he a Christian? In fact, in the case of George Washington, he explicitly leaves the question open:
If belonging to a Christian church, fairly regularly attending services, believing that God directed human affairs, and emphasizing the social benefits of religion is enough to be a Christian, then Washington was one. If, on the other hand, to be a Christian, one must publicly affirm the divinity and resurrection of Christ and his atonement for humanity’s sin and participate in the Lord’s Supper, then Washington cannot be considered a Christian.
The most interesting chapter to me so far is that on Woodrow Wilson. A professing Christian (of the Presbyterian stripe), Wilson believed the country had a divine mission to become a Christian nation and then to christianize the world. He believed the Great War would end all wars because it would put away the last bad political system in Europe and leave the continent in the hands of democracy amd faith. His League of Nations would settle international issues in the way of the Prince of Peace rather than by war. He wanted to base it in Geneva because in that city, Calvin also had tried to found a European Christian commonwealth. I can’t buy into any of this Christian agenda, but I’m so very glad to know about it. These are things they didn’t teach me in my college history classes.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Ahead of His Time

Lucretius is a hard character to figure out. He says the gods don’t care anything about us, but he starts his great poem, De rerum natura, by invoking the aid of Venus. He explains moon phases and eclipses in the right way, and then he turns around and proposes alternative theories that fly in the face of the evidence – evidence that was abundantly clear to any person from the first century B. C. with at least one good eye. His speculations about sight seem ludicrous, yet his speculations about the atomic nature of matter are astonishingly prescient.

Lucretius states his purpose several times in his verses: to show that every phenomenon has a material explanation so readers can be free from fear of the gods. Lightning is caused by particles of heat crashing in the clouds, not by Jupiter’s anger. If lightning were a punishment for human crimes and impieties, then why does lightning happen sometimes in the open sea? To make his point, Lucretius has to explain the material nature of everything – everything. Where the science doesn’t exist, he makes it up. All he has to do, after all, is show that materialism is plausible.

Somewhere between his explanations of the origins of dreams and the origins of earthquakes, Lucretius tackles astronomical events. He starts his discussion of lunar phases with the very sensible theory that, as the moon makes its way around the earth, the sun lights different parts of it. But then he indulges the urge to propose theories B and C: (B) that one half of the moon shines by its own light and spins as it revolves around the earth, and (C) that for some unknown reason the moon’s natural light fades and grows again in a continuous pattern. Now Lucretius could see as well as I (better probably) that the same dark spots sit in the same places on the moon’s surface and that the bourne between lunar day and lunar night moves across those dark spots. So obviously the moon doesn’t spin its supposedly stationary bright half away from the earth once a month. And Lucretius could see where the sun was (or figure where it would be when it rose) and note that the moon’s bright half always points toward the sun’s location. I think he knew perfectly well that the solar reflection theory was the correct one: he puts it first and spends longer on it than on the other two. And again, it accords with observation where the other two don’t. But then why did he offer the others?

Similarly with eclipses, Lucretius first says that the moon travels through the earth’s shadow (he even knows the umbra has the shape of a cone), causing a lunar eclipse, and then passes between the earth and the sun, causing a solar eclipse. But then – why? for some sense of false humility? – he says that he may be wrong and proceeds to give other possible explanations. Maybe the moon’s light just fades every now and then. Perhaps the sun’s fires run out of fuel and then start up again. Or maybe some other dark celestial object rushes in ahead of the moon and blocks the sun’s rays. Seriously? He knows where the moon is. He can see it morning by morning creeping its way toward the sun, its crescent growing thinner and thinner. So does he think the sun’s flames just happen to die exactly when the moon is right in front of it?

His view (hah!) of sight is so close, and yet so far! Every object, he says, constantly puts off tiny bits off stuff without any discernible loss. If this were not so, we’d never smell anything. So every physical object, every table for instance, must constantly shed tiny images of itself, a stream of “idols” cast off as a snake sheds skin. These idols fly through openings in the air, and, if light is shining on them, we see them. So he knows we see the idol because light shines on it, but he can’t fathom that we see the table itself because light shines on it? Lucretius likes his idol theory, though, because it gives the mind something material to see later when it remembers or imagines or dreams of tables. But watch out when the table idol and the leg idol crash into one another up there! We might start dreaming about walking tables.

While I smile through all these parts of De rerum natura, I find myself picking up my jaw while reading about “first-beginnings.” In a passage reminiscent of Aristotle’s argument for underlying matter, Lucretius points out that when the cold, gray, solid metal turns into something hot, red, and pliable, some kind of stuff must occupy that place through all the changes of appearance and quality. That stuff cannot absolutely fill the space; without void in the stuff, nothing could ever move. And the stuff must be in the form of tiny particles, since it is unimaginable that we could divide physical matter interminably. He calls these indivisible particles “first-beginnings” or “seeds.” There must be several different kinds of seeds, he argues, because there are so many kinds of material in the world: bone, wood, stone, water, iron, heat, smells, visible idols, etc. Each kind of substance must be made out of a different combination of seed types. Finally, each variety of seed must have a different shape, and those shapes must involve hooks to keep the combinations together in normal situations.

Substitute electromagnetic valence for Lucretius’ hooks, and you have our basic chemistry. Lucretius provides no details to be sure: he doesn't name Helium or Lithium. But he reasoned himself to a numerous set of atomic elements – more than the four traditional but fewer than the types of substance in the material world – and a molecular theory. The brilliant scientist and philosopher Aristotle muddles around trying to imagine all the world made out of just four elements and has no good hypothesis for how they stay grouped together until forced apart. And yet this poet sees through to an idea sixteen-hundred years ahead of its time. What may be even more amazing is that he doesn’t offer a ridiculous theory as a second option.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Ariosto Speaks and I Hear Violins: It’s Ma - a - gi - ic!

I’m sure literary critics have systematic explanations for magic in literature. And now that I’m thinking about it, perhaps I should look them up; I think I’d probably enjoy reading about it. But abject ignorance has never kept me from voicing my opinion on this blog before, and it won’t begin to do so today.

Last Friday, after six years of reading (and twenty years of anticipation before that), I finished Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. Gone now are the magic castles and charmed armor, the sorceresses and hippogriffs. As my thoughts have revolved around these magical elements, how much I’ve enjoyed them, and how much I look forward to visiting Ariosto’s fantastic world again in a few years, I find myself wondering why Ariosto incorporated magic, what advantages it brought to the tale, and what I got from it.

First, and most obviously, magic in literature is fun. Astolfo rides a Hippogriff to the tallest mountain on Earth, where he finds John the Evangelist, and then rides on Elijah’s chariot to the moon to find Orlando’s lost wits. That sequence is wonderful in both the literal and usual senses of the word, and the clutter of lost things on the moon is simply one of the most vivid scenes I’ve ever read. But this isn’t an isolated instance; magical devices and creatures and actions fill the book. Monsters and people turned to stone and prophetic sculpture (funny how the prophecies mostly look forward to Ariosto’s patron, Ippolito d’Este) and love potions keep the pages turning.

Second, while unrealistic in a sense, magic seems normal to us since most of our earliest stories involve magic. We know that secret formulas become known because we know the story of Ali Baba. We know that no good will happen when a protagonist buys a magic item from a stranger because we know about Snow White. On the other hand, we know that if someone complains about the magic item bought from the stranger, it will do good in an unexpected way, because we know about Jack the Giant Killer. These familiar dynamics bring a sense of comfort that outweighs any aversion or disorientation we might experience from the exotic elements themselves.

Third, magic shows us that the world is more than it appears. Some of Tolkien’s circle told him they feared his Lord of the Rings would make people disappointed in the real world. He responded by saying he hoped, on the contrary, that readers would find the real world more alive than ever before, that they would learn from his book to see the tree in their yard and think of the ent inside. His hope is fulfilled in me.

Fourth, literary magic shows a world in which humans are not in control, a lesson we all need. The heroes have magic armor and magic weapons, so they can’t very well take credit for their victories. Can we in fact even call them heroes? Yes, in the sense that Ariosto’s paladins must accept these weapons as gifts of grace and use them. The virtuous path is neither to take credit for what the magic weapons accomplish nor wallow in self-doubt or debilitating thoughts of being undeserving. But even with the knowledge of having been chosen to bear mystically empowered implements, the magical hero can still take nothing for granted: what happens when the infallible sword meets the invulnerable shield? Even people with powers of magical manipulation within them don’t have control in Ariosto’s world. Melissa, a prominent and ambivalent sorceress in Orlando, explains near the end of the book that once a week she is turned into a snake for a day and that during this day the heavens don’t listen to her wishes.

Finally, it seems to me that in the hands of a Christian writer, magic can stand in for God’s power. How does a writer of fiction dare to represent God as a character? If I write a story about Cora and Rudy, I have no qualms about deciding what my protagonists would do in a particular situation. But how can I presume to declare what the wise Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of the Universe would do with a certain hypothetical person in a given hypothetical case? Yes, representing God’s providence by means of magic coins and swords only substitutes one set of symbols for another. But just as a painter may without sin (I believe and hope) symbolize by the image of a beam of light the God who demanded no graven images, the extra layer of symbolism in fiction also seems much less blasphemous.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

It Happens

Yes, it does. It happens. I see that have not written a blog post on Gregory of Nazianzus’s Theological Orations. But my personal notes are sketchy, and in the weeks since I read these five addresses, I’ve forgotten a lot (i.e. most) of what he said. People sometimes comment about my special gift of memory for books, but I don’t have such a gift. I have a special gift for (usually) obsessive note-taking. And I guess I like to talk about the one thing that stands out to me in a book, so that one thing sticks with me really well. Homines dum docent discunt. “People learn while teaching,” says the old Roman proverb – a proverb that I remember (in both English and Latin) because I once taught it.

What I remember of Gregory is that he says we only know God from his tokens in the creation, and that while we can only define Him in terms of what He is not (He is incomprehensible, immaterial, immortal, etc.), we must try to advance and determine some positive attributes of God. And then he devotes one oration to the Father, one to the Son, and one to the Holy Spirit. And that’s about all I remember. Curiously, I can add one thing about Gregory of Nazianzus based on the next book I read. Pelikan’s History of the Development of Doctrine cites Gregory as one of the first writers to treat explicitly of the deity of the Holy Spirit.

So I don’t have a lot to say about Gregory of Nazianzus. But I don’t have a lot of time to go back and reread, either. Besides work and family matters, I have Lucretius and Ariosto to enjoy now. I have to remind myself that a plan like mine will not leave every great work a blazing first-magnitude star in my mind. Some will twinkle like epsilon Cygni: not a star to navigate by, but important for filling out a clear picture.