The Face of Jesus

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The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by the German artist and printmaker Hans Holbein the Younger between 1520–22.

A friend recently shared this passage from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, along with the painting it describes. Like the character in the novel, one is struck by the importance of the meaninglessness that the artist chose to depict, seemingly forever frozen on Jesus’s face.

When any of us look at death, this is what we see. We see meaninglessness there, and it threatens to engulf us. We wince at the absurdity. It appears there is no hope against such a force. Our only relief is to look away.

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G.K. Chesterton on Charles Dickens and Moral Psychology

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“If flattered or let alone, our kindliest fault can destroy our kindliest virtue. A thing may begin as a very human weakness and end as a very inhuman weakness … A man may begin by being too generous to pay his debts, and end by being too mean to pay his debts. For the vices are very strangely in league, and encourage each other.”

 

From Chapter VIII: The Time of Transition in Charles Dickens by G.K. Chesterton

“…In the character of Skimpole, Dickens displayed again a quality that was very admirable in him — I mean a disposition to see things sanely and to satirise even his own faults. He was commonly occupied in satirising the Gradgrinds, the economists, the men of Smiles and Self-Help. For him there was nothing poorer than their wealth, nothing more selfish than their self-denial. And against them he was in the habit of pitting the people of a more expansive habit — the happy Swivellers and Micawbers, who, if they were poor, were at least as rich as their last penny could make them. He loved that great Christian carelessness that seeks its meat from God. It was merely a kind of uncontrollable honesty that forced him into urging the other side. He could not disguise from himself or from the world that man who began by seeking his meat from his neighbour without apprising his neighbour of the fact. He had shown how good irresponsibility could be; he could not stoop to hide how bad it could be. He created Skimpole; and Skimpole is the dark underside of Micawber.

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Dostoevsky’s “Rebellion” and the Problem of Evil

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Dostoyevsky (2002) by Manuel Sandoval

 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

Romans 8:18

C.S. Lewis wrote that we often say of some instance of human suffering that “no future bliss can make up for it,” but this is only because we cannot see “that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.”[1] But what if there are some evils that are so blatantly egregious, so unrestrained in their dehumanizing cruelty that their very existence calls into question the reality of this future glory? In his book The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky offers the reader this powerful formulation of the problem of evil. In a chapter titled “Rebellion,” Ivan Karamazov recounts in excruciating detail incidents where young children were mercilessly tortured for fun. He challenges the idea that God could ever merge such evil with goodness into some sort of glorious, eternal harmony. Ivan even questions the morality of such an arrangement. “Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last,” he asks his brother, “but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?”[2] Ivan will not abide the sufferings of innocent children for, in his estimation, no future glory can make up for them.

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Charlotte Brontë by G.K. Chesterton

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“She approached the universe with real simplicity, and, consequently, with real fear and delight. She was, so to speak, shy before the multitude of the stars, and in this she had possessed herself of the only force which can prevent enjoyment being as black and barren as routine. The faculty of being shy is the first and the most delicate of the powers of enjoyment. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of pleasure.”

CHARLOTTE BRONTË

by G.K. Chesterton, from Twelve Types, 1902

“Objection is often raised against realistic biography because it reveals so much that is important and even sacred about a man’s life. The real objection to it will rather be found in the fact that it reveals about a man the precise points which are unimportant. It reveals and asserts and insists on exactly those things in a man’s life of which the man himself is wholly unconscious; his exact class in society, the circumstances of his ancestry, the place of his present location. These are things which do not, properly speaking, ever arise before the human vision. They do not occur to a man’s mind; it may be said, with almost equal truth, that they do not occur in a man’s life. A man no more thinks about himself as the inhabitant of the third house in a row of Brixton villas than he thinks about himself as a strange animal with two legs. What a man’s name was, what his income was, whom he married, where he lived, these are not sanctities; they are irrelevancies.

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Modernity and Rest

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Fountains Abbey

“Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10

To seek times of silent reflection in order to listen to the essence of things is to assume that things have an essence to be heard. According to Josef Pieper, in his seminal essay, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, the great thinkers of the past, from the Greeks to the medievals, “held that not only physical, sensuous perception, but equally man’s spiritual and intellectual knowledge, included an element of pure, receptive contemplation.”[1] This entails another assumption, namely that there is something to receive, that there is something given, that there is a Giver that gives. Pieper contends that these assumptions together form the basis of true rest, and that rest necessarily culminates in a kind of worshipful celebration of God. This is true leisure. It is something given gratuitously and received with joy. Most of all, it is deeply affirming. I have come to see that to enter into a time of silence with these two assumptions makes a world of difference.

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Models, Madness, and Topsy-Turvy Land

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“The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” ― G.K. Chesterton, “Orthodoxy”

Thanks to studying the Medieval Model of the cosmos (via C.S. Lewis, a professional medieval scholar at both Oxford and Cambridge), I think I finally understand what G.K. Chesterton meant when he said that our modern world is topsy-turvy, that we are all born upside down when it comes to our cosmic perspective. It really has to do with the self-conscious way we look at the universe, from the smallest of things to the greatest.

That self-consciousness started with Adam and Eve, by the way.  SELF-consciousness.

Scientifically limited as their Model was, the Medievals started with Christ Jesus and the Gospel and worked downward from there. We are always looking out in their universe – out into a brightly-lit festival of celestial beauty and harmony. It’s a cosmic dance that welcomes and comforts. Our world of sin and fallenness is on the outside looking in like a cold beggar peering into a warm, fire-lit parlor. Compare this to the cold and inhospitable vacuity of our modern model. It’s completely inverted!

Cosmos versus space – think of the difference between those words. The former humbles us in the gentlest, most welcoming of ways. The latter (our view), humbles through fear with its eternal silence and infinite spaces. This is the difference between starting with God and starting with man when it comes to cosmic model (and worldview) building.

God humbles more gently than man humbles.

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Medieval Synthesis and Modern Fragmentation

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As in their moral lives, medieval scholars operated under the assumption that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it (2 Cor. 3). Anglo-Saxons Christians loved unity and order. Perhaps the upheaval of the times, the rapidly rising, falling, and fragmenting of kingdoms and countries, stimulated a passion for order that might have otherwise been absent. Perhaps it was the presence of “huge masses of heterogeneous material,” fragments of a more civilized and advanced time that they inherited after the fall of Rome.[1] Regardless, they operated upon these principles of finding unity and order and this led them to become extraordinary synthesizers. In his book The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis writes that “At his most characteristic, medieval man was … an organiser, a codifier, a builder of systems.”[2] He wanted “place for everything and everything in the right place.” From the “chance collection” of translations that had reached down through the centuries from Athens, they had “a corpus that frequently contradicted itself.”[3]  Yet instead of taking the modern route of accepting one authority at the expense of another, the medieval mind delighted in harmonizing the apparent contradictions – even between Christians and pagans.  All truth was God’s truth to them, even that which came from pagan cultures. Though the forces of fragmentation may be different in modern times, we can still learn from their ability to create harmony across disciplines. Indeed, the fragmentation of our moral lives extends into all areas of culture, including our academics, arts, and sciences. We set reason high “on the soul’s acropolis,” as C.S. Lewis writes in his poem “Reason,” consigning the imagination with her “dim exploring touch” to seemingly impassable depths.[4] As we enter a post-Christian era, we can learn from the medieval church’s ability to bring together all of the disciplines into “a complex unity that encompassed all of time and space,” leaving out nothing, thus revealing the grandeur of God.[5]

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