“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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Christianity is Like Life

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Paradise Lost by Gustave Dore

Chesterton on the problem of evil from his book, The Everlasting Man:

“…But if [Christianity] is not a mythology neither is it a philosophy. It is not a philosophy because, being a vision, it is not a pattern but a picture. It is not one of those simplifications which resolve everything into an abstract explanation…It is not a process but a story. It has proportions, of the sort seen in a picture or a story; it has not the regular repetitions of a pattern or a process, but it replaces them by being convincing as a picture or a story is convincing. In other words, it is exactly, as the phrase goes, like life. For indeed it is life.

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Part One: “My Lord and My God!” The Incarnation and Arianism

View of Acropolis & Parthenon from stone

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in the Son.”[1]

During the twilight hours of late-antiquity, the deepening gloom of cosmic despair could be seen on the horizon upon which the mythologies and philosophies of man had exhausted themselves. In his book, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, David Bentley Hart writes that it was “a time when religion and philosophy alike were increasingly concerned with the escape from the conditions of earthly life, and when both often encouraged a contempt for the flesh more absolute, bitterly unworldly, and pessimistic” than ever before.[2] With noble resignation, mankind had come to accept this world as nothing more than a material prison.  History was stuck in an endless cycle, punctuated by the wiles of capricious and demanding gods.   In this 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 Supreme God 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] Salvation could only be found in escape.

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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 area 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 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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Divine Providence and Human Free Will

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“The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt

“For I am confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will continue to perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus”  ~ Philippians 1:6

In his book, Classic Christianity, Thomas C. Oden likens the complex interaction between divine providence and human freedom to “good human parenting.”[1]  He writes that “the providence of God guides human freedom in four phases: by permitting, restraining, overruling, and limiting our choices.”[2]  Part of God’s providential care and purpose is to permit us to fail “in order to allow the larger good of enabling freedom.”[3]  At times, God does restrain our actions by non-coercively and indirectly hindering us.  He hedges us in.[4]  He will directly overrule our choices either by correction and discipline or by turning what was meant for evil into good or to spur spiritual growth.  Odens writes, “God guides wisely by going ahead of our present freedom to prepare a new way … opening some doors, closing others … grace [preventing] freedom’s way from leading to disaster, or from tempting inordinately.”[5]

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