Thursday, February 20, 2020

The Sword and the Cup

How does a Christian know when to denounce a doctrine as heresy and when to hold an open mind and talk things out? When should a Christian refuse to worship with someone holding different beliefs, and when should we agree to disagree? Jesus normally squared off with the Pharisees, but He welcomed the Pharisee Nicodemus into a theological discussion. Paul says the Lord will requite Alexander the coppersmith for his deeds, and yet two verses later, he prays that the desertion of his fair-weather friends not be charged against them. When to show judgment and when mercy? When to bare the sword and when to offer the cup? I have a tentative explanation for Jesus’ differing approaches, but I don’t need to share it here, partly because I think there is no one clear-cut answer – that handling these dilemmas correctly depends not on a rule but on an ongoing relationship with living Wisdom. I will say that it has seemed clear to me from the time I was a teenager and first started to think of such things that Americans tend to err on the side of separation much too often. (I also think Americans excessively tend to make these decisions individually rather than in the body of the Church as a whole, but that’s a slightly different story.)

Augustine also made these distinctions and usually seems to have been comfortable with his decision either way. He clearly considered Pelagians outside the pale of orthodox Christianity and devoted several books to refuting them. I chose the metaphors of sword and cup to represent the two options, but doesn’t Augustine actually employ both? While he draws with the sword tip a sharp line between Catholicism and Pelagianism, doesn’t he also drink together with his foes in sharing so many words with them? After all, he doesn’t recommend the literal sword for dissenters as many later purported Christians would do, so the separation isn’t so wide as to be unbridgeable.

In the three short works I read this month, Augustine presents examples of both strategies, and they both struck me as particularly wise. In Predestination of the Saints and The Gift of Perseverance (which he considered the two parts of a longer, unnamed whole), the Bishop teaches that God is the source of both the beginning of faith and the end of faith. He proves his point both through Scripture (an appeal to authority) and argument (an appeal to reason), and sometimes uses a homey form of reasoning that could be called an appeal to experience: if you don’t think God is responsible for the beginning of another person’s faith, then why do you pray to Him to bring about the salvation of others? I found his variety of strategies and his understanding of the psychology of his readers impressive, reassuring, and convincing.

In his early treatise On Faith and the Creed, when Augustine reaches the topic of the Holy Spirit, he says that Bible scholars have not yet agreed on what relation the Holy Spirit has to the other two Persons of the Trinity. We know He is a Person, he says, and that He is not begotten from either the Father or the Son (so He is not the brother of the Word, and He is not the Holy Grandson of the Father). He is not a second Beginning: all comes from the Father. But then how is He related? Is He the Love between the Father and Son or something different?  He makes no mention of either breathing or procession. I appreciated Augustine not taking a stand on this one but acknowledging that Bible scholars can reach different tentative conclusions.

Now, the Church split in 1054 supposedly over this very question of the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the other Persons. By that time, procession was generally considered the name of the bond, but does He proceed from the Father only, as the Eastern Church insisted, or from both the Father and the Son, as the Western, Latin Church declared? I recite the western form of the creed, professing that the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son, but I maintain confidence that my eternal salvation won’t depend on getting that one right. One thing I know: if anyone tries to tell me that “The” Church “always” believed one way on this issue, they are mistaken. Augustine says the scholars hadn’t yet agreed. Apparently they still don’t.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Where Did I Read That?

Have you ever plagued yourself trying to remember where you read some given thing? It happens to me all the time. Sometimes I want to tell my wife about something I read in just the last day and can’t remember where I read it: News story? Novel? Philosophical work? In other instances, I look for years for the elusive source of my mental Nile. One imaginary Dr. Livingstone slashed about for about fifteen years through the densest tangle of confused memories seeking the place where I had first read about the difference between wit and judgment. He finally fulfilled his quest when I reread Thomas Hobbes in 2009. (Wit is the power of comparing disparate things, while judgment is the power of discerning differences in similar things.)

Another jungle trek came to an end in just the last few days. I really don’t know how long I had been hoping to rediscover where C. S. Lewis talks about creation as the greatest miracle. The words as I remembered them were something like these: “Creation is the first and greatest miracle because by Creation, God brought into existence what is not God.” I thought sure I’d come across it in Miracles when I revisited that book a few years ago. But I had to wait until rereading The Problem of Pain to find my rest.

It turns out that those words were all mine (except where they borrowed from Jesus talking about commandments). But the gist was accurate. Here is the actual phrasing in the inimitable style of the great professor: “To make things which are not Itself, and thus to become, in a sense, capable of being resisted by its own handiwork, is the most astonishing and unimaginable of all the feats we attribute to the Deity.”

But wait. Creation in a book about pain? Yes. In his answer to the age-old question of how an all-powerful loving God can allow evil (he’s especially interested in the pain involved in the consciousness of evil), Lewis speculates on why God made a physical universe. I don’t know of anything else like this passage, although if I told him that, he’d probably chuckle and tell me I just hadn’t read enough. Lewis then runs through his ideas on the moral constitution of humans, sin, the Fall, the meaning of goodness, the Incarnation, Redemption, Heaven, and more. Maybe this, and not Mere Christianity, is the fundamental exposition of Lewis’s view of life, the universe, and everything. Why isn’t it more popular?

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Who Wants to Read Apollonius of Perga?

For my second post of the year, I’m already going to some extracurricular reading. Among other treasures, I received for this last Christmas a copy of A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books by Alex Beam, who, the cover tells me, is also the author of Gracefully Insane. Now I received on another Christmas around 1994, the best present my mom ever got me: the Britannica Great Books, the books that gave me the liberal education I had longed for over decades, the books that got me hooked on ten-year reading plans, the books that inspired this blog. One of the downsides of having a ten-year reading plan is that when someone gives you a book, it’s not always easy to find a place for it in your schedule. But when I get a history of the Britannica Great Books, I’m going to read it and I’m going to blog about it.

Alas, Beam takes a dim view of the enterprise. Not that his skewering send-up of my beloved Great Books isn’t fascinating and hilarious. Mortimer Adler was indeed a ludicrous personage, and Beam makes me laugh as he shows Adler pushing himself into situations he’s not qualified for, trying to show off at parties, or claiming that syntopicon will become a household word. And, yes, Adler comes across as a wannabe scholar when he has to admit he knows only one language. But Beam’s bottom-line critique asks whatever made Mortimer Adler think that any twentieth-century American would want to read the Conics of Apollonius of Perga. And yet, thousands of people did. They read it in English, in an old-fashioned translation (copyright free) from the previous century. They read it in 8-point type. They went to the University of Chicago to read it, and they formed clubs all over the country to read it. And they came back for more.

Also providing much comic relief in the story is Kenneth Harden, who developed techniques of selling the sets door-to-door. And it worked! Intellectually insecure suburbanites bought them up by the – ok, by the tens. But somebody had to pay for the production of these books. So what if Mrs. Midwest spent a few hundred dollars on books that got no interaction from her other than dusting? As the funny papers’ Blondie once said, “If I’m not going to read, I might as well not read something educational.” Who are we to say that that American Dreamer didn’t get enjoyment out of just having the books in the living room for guests to see?

At some point, one of those sets made it to Adrian’s Used Book Store in Oklahoma City, and then made it to me. Nothing about the set I bought suggested that any one volume had ever been opened. There were no markings in any of the books. The cracks in the cheap binding might have come from nothing other than decades of changing weather. But I have read many words in every volume and every word in about half the volumes. A couple of them I’ve read twice (Shakespeare and Boswell). Many of the volumes have book-repair tape holding the fragile covers together. And they're marked up plenty now! At some point I had to start using a magnifying glass to read the small type, but that’s no trouble for me. So why is Beam so dead set against a project that doesn’t excite millions of people at a time? Who wants to read Apollonius? I do.

And, yes, I read it in English. I’ve learned all that I’ve learned from the ancients and from the French and the Russians through translation. Beam tells of several experts arguing with Adler that Greek philosophy can only be understood in Greek, and he makes fun of Adler’s habitual retort as defensive and inadequate. But I think Adler makes a good point by asking his critics, “Oh? So you read the Old Testament in Hebrew?” Does Beam or anyone else seriously think the world would be a better place without these translated words?
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Monday, January 13, 2020

The Poetry of Broken Sentences

OK, I’ve seen some movies written by David Mamet, but I had never read one of his plays. Were the films I saw full of the interruptions, fragments, and grammatical solecisms of Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow? There may not have been a single complete sentence in either play.

The characters in these dramas are as shattered as their grammar; they certainly talk in the manner of people who want to make sense of life and pronounce principles without having been disciplined to read, think, and listen coherently. But does this diminished argot really make for better art than iambic pentameter does? I didn’t like Glengarry Glen Ross. I felt sorry for the dejected realtors trying to separate fools from their money by joining them to specious plots in Florida. But Death of a Salesman it was not, and so the steady flow of linguistic shards got tedious.

By the end of Speed-the-Plow, on the other hand, I found the bumpy cadence of the lines contributing integrally to a moving, pathetic portrait. Here, it’s movie producers, working in a medium that conveys meaning but constrained to create a work that a mass public will pay to see. Two of the three characters find themselves confronted with the opportunity to make a movie with a message that has a hope of changing viewers for the better, but they each alloy their altruism in various ways enough to disillusion each other, and crass commercialism wins out in the end. And yet at least now they know that commercialism is crass and that there’s a contest. In my mind, the realization moves them from being two-dimensional machines into being fully rounded tragic figures.

 In the same week, I read Thomas Morton’s Speed the Plough from 1798, having planned it thinking it had some connection with Mamet’s play. Apparently it has none except mutual inspiration from an old saying about God’s eagerness to bless industry. In Morton’s play, everyone works hard to keep secrets, marry the right person, and end up with some money: all the requirements of a good farce. And for good measure, there’s a literal plowing race.

 I much preferred this classical comedy to Mamet’s biting cynicism. Maybe I just don’t want my art imitating life too closely right now. A death and a will have a way of bringing out the worst in people, and I need some happy endings.

A happy post-script: I just found out that today, the first Monday after Twelfth Day of Christmas, is traditionally known as Plough Monday. Well, let’s all get to work!