Sanity and Certainty

Stahl, P., active 1889-1890; A Hansom Cab Stand

A Hansom Cab Stand: 19th century
by P. Stahl

The Extraordinary Cabman

by G.K. Chesterton

“I propose to narrate the incident of the extraordinary cabman, which occurred to me only three days ago, and which, slight as it apparently is, aroused in me a moment of genuine emotion bordering upon despair.”

In this short essay, G.K. Chesterton shares how an otherwise ordinary incident turned into an extraordinary parable given that it occurred shortly after a conversation he had with some skeptic friends. Those friends were most likely no other than H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw (with Hilaire Belloc representing at least one of the group whom Chesterton calls the “uncontrollable believers”).

Life is actually full of incidents turning into parables, if we have the eyes to see. This should come as no surprise for existence itself is extraordinary, Chesterton would tell us. Of this, he was certain.

Enjoy this variation on one of his favorite arguments for the truth of our Christian creed – what I call his Argument from Sanity.

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Faith, Hope, Charity

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“Hope” by G.F. Watts

Faith is always at a disadvantage; it is a perpetually defeated thing which survives all its conquerors. The desperate modern talk about dark days and reeling altars, and the end of Gods and angels, is the oldest talk in the world: lamentations over the growth of agnosticism can be found in the monkish sermons of the dark ages; horror at youthful impiety can be found in the Iliad. This is the thing that never deserts men and yet always, with daring diplomacy, threatens to desert them.”

G.K. Chesterton on G.F. Watts’ Hope

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Illusions and Boats

Watts, George Frederic, 1817-1904; A Sea Ghost

Sea Ghost by G.F. Watts

“We men and women are all in the same boat, upon a stormy sea. We owe to each other a terrible and tragic loyalty.” G.K. Chesterton

Here is a thoughtful article from one of my favorite scientists/theologians, Alister McGrath: Is God a Figment of Our Imagination? On Certainty, Scepticism and the Limits of Proof. In it, he claims that “everyone who believes anything worthwhile and takes the trouble to think about things – including atheists, Marxists, or secular humanists – will find themselves having to confront the vulnerability of their beliefs. We are all in the same boat.”

I would add that honestly confronting the vulnerability is key and as I did this, I saw that I would have to give up more with atheism. We are all in the same boat in some ways but at the end of the day, when it comes to levels of vulnerability, our beliefs are ultimately in different boats. Not all boats are created equal. I learned this by investigating the fundamentals of atheism or the bottom atheism’s boat, you could say. It had more holes.

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The Burden of Doubt: A Cross to Bear

Loneliness

“The Sea of Faith /Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore /Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. /But now I only hear /Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, /Retreating…” from “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold

“In dealing with the arrogant asserter of doubt, it is not the right method to tell him to stop doubting. It is rather the right method to tell him to go on doubting, to doubt a little more, to doubt every day newer and wilder things in the universe, until at last, by some strange enlightenment, he may begin to doubt himself.”

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Part Two: Medieval and Modern Suffering

The Agony in the Garden circa 1799-1800 by William Blake 1757-1827

Jesus’s Agony in the Garden by Blake

We moderns do not suffer well. At first glance, this might seem strange to our medieval ancestors since our living conditions are far superior to that of any other civilization in human history. Nevertheless, they would quickly discern that our relative wealth and security represent “only the surface of our lives.”[1] Below the busy-ness and sophistication, there is an emptiness as vast as the space of our cosmological models. Because of this, we feel our suffering more acutely. Despite the fact that their day-to-day lives were decidedly more difficult, our medieval ancestors would pity us. Chesterton wrote that because of our nearsightedness when it comes to the cosmos, we “have been forced to be gay about the little things, but sad about the big ones.”[2] Indeed, the little and big things have been cordoned off from one other in our world. As C.S. Lewis wrote, we have divided the two such that “on the one side [there is] a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism,’” that is ultimately meaningless.[3] In his book Faith, Hope and Poetry, Malcolm Guite writes that in our world, “the faculties of Imagination and Intuition, those very faculties that alone [are] capable of integrating, synthesising, and making sense of our atomized factual knowledge, [have been] relegated to a purely private and ‘subjective’ truth.”[4] Again, man is the measure in the modern mind, so this subjectivity is inevitable. Part of our task as apologists is to repair the fragmentation between our imaginations and our reason, to bind again what has been torn apart. As Holly Ordway writes in her book Apologetics and the Christian Imagination, our culture struggles “not with missing facts, but with missing meaning,” and this is difficult mental soil for the Gospel to take root.[5] This is where imaginative apologetics is indispensable for it seeks to bridge the gap between the two. Once again, we can look back to our medieval clerk to give us a way forward for in his mind no chasm existed. Therefore, as we scale the lonely peak of our modern age once again, leaving the medieval pageantry and joy behind, it is our task as ambassadors for our Golden King to tell our age about that valley below.  Two poems, in particular, can show us how the combination of imagination and reason provide a powerful antidote to our modern situation: Malcolm Guite’s “O Sapientia” and “O Clavis,” two among seven sonnets inspired by the medieval ‘O Antiphons’ that were written for the Advent season.

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“If I Had Only One Sermon To Preach” by G.K. Chesterton

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From Paradise Lost by Gustav Dore

“Pride is a weakness in the character; it dries up laughter, it dries up wonder, it dries up chivalry and energy.” – G.K. Chesterton

“If I had only one sermon to preach, it would be a sermon against Pride. The more I see of existence, and especially of modern practical and experimental existence, the more I am convinced of the reality of the old religious thesis; that all evil began with some attempt at superiority; some moment when, as we might say, the very skies were cracked across like a mirror, because there was a sneer in Heaven.

Now the first fact to note about this notion is a rather curious one. Of all such notions, it is the one most generally dismissed in theory and most universally accepted in practice. Modern men imagine that such a theological idea is quite remote from them; and, stated as a theological idea, it probably is remote from them. But, as a matter of fact, it is too close to them to be recognised. It is so completely a part of their minds and morals and instincts, I might almost say of their bodies, that they take it for granted and act on it even before they think of it. It is actually the most popular of all moral ideas; and yet it is almost entirely unknown as a moral idea. No truth is now so unfamiliar as a truth, or so familiar as a fact.

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The Post-Christian West and the Eye of a Needle

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Nocturne by Whistler

“Round us in antic order their crippled vices came—
Lust that had lost its laughter, fear that had lost its shame.
Like the white lock of Whistler, that lit our aimless gloom,
Men showed their own white feather as proudly as a plume.
Life was a fly that faded, and death a drone that stung;
The world was very old indeed when you and I were young.”

~ G.K. Chesterton

Taking up a theme from a previous post, here is another way in which Christianity changed the world for the better.  Not only did the Gospel’s focus on the poor and unforgotten give value to an entire segment of society that the pagan world looked upon with patronizing pity at best, the Gospel revolutionized mankind’s conceptual framework for understanding reality.  The modern world rejects Christianity at its own peril, as Hart will demonstrate.  We are deluding ourselves, in fact.

In his book, Atheist Delusions, David Bentley Hart notes that we moderns “believe in nature and in history: in the former’s rational regularity and in the latter’s genuine openness to novelty.”[1]  Not so for the pagans.  They had no concept of “the arrow of time” and did not assume that history contained a “narrative logic” broad enough to house “both disjunction and resolution.”  For them, history could not move “towards an end quite different from its beginning” but was stuck in an endless cycle, punctuated by the wiles of capricious and demanding gods.[2]  In their view, there was a regularity in history that followed the cycles of nature – an endless, thus meaningless, continuum of “creation and dissolution, without beginning or end.”[3]  The wisest amongst the pagans would agree that “generations come and generations go, / but the earth remains forever” all the while, the ultimate deity remained completely out of reach and uninvolved. [4]  The most one could hope for is to be able to cultivate a resigned soul that was “immune to the effects of time and nature alike.”[5]

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The Wind and the Trees by G.K. Chesterton

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“The Wind and the Trees”

by G.K. Chesterton

I am sitting under tall trees, with a great wind boiling like surf about the tops of them, so that their living load of leaves rocks and roars in something that is at once exultation and agony. I feel, in fact, as if I were actually sitting at the bottom of the sea among mere anchors and ropes, while over my head and over the green twilight of water sounded the everlasting rush of waves and the toil and crash and shipwreck of tremendous ships. The wind tugs at the trees as if it might pluck them root and all out of the earth like tufts of grass. Or, to try yet another desperate figure of speech for this unspeakable energy, the trees are straining and tearing and lashing as if they were a tribe of dragons each tied by the tail.

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Peter’s Tears

A detail from St Peter in tears by El Greco

St. Peter’s Tears by El Greco (1541-1614)

In his book, Atheist Delusions, David Bentley Hart contends that when we moderns read the scriptures, we do so through a lens that has been fashioned by those very texts.  As a result, what was once extraordinary has become more than ordinary, appearing as natural and effortless as breathing.  In no other event is this more evident than in Peter’s denial of Christ and his subsequent sorrow.  Hart writes that “what is obvious to us—Peter’s wounded soul, the profundity of his devotion to his teacher, the torment of his guilt, the crushing knowledge that Christ’s imminent death forever foreclosed the possibility of seeking forgiveness for his betrayal—is obvious in very large part because we are the heirs of a culture that, in a sense, sprang from Peter’s tears.”[1]

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The Bond of Love by Nicole Howe

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Below is a guest post from my dear friend and fellow graduate student at HBU.  It is a beautiful reflection on the Holy Spirit.  Enjoy!   

“The Bond of Love” by Nicole Howe

Arguing for the existence of God is becoming especially difficult in a materialistic culture that demands knowledge come exclusively via empirical and scientific means. The difficulty is not due to a lack of evidence for God’s existence, (nor for the historicity of Jesus), but because God’s entire being is something that ultimately transcends our material world.

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