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 Shop of Ghosts” by G.K. Chesterton

Christmas_with_the_Yule_Log,_Illustrated_London_News,_23_Dec_1848

Engraving of Father Christmas, 1848

 

“The Shop of Ghosts”

by G.K. Chesterton from Tremendous Trifles, 1909

(Listen to a wonderful reading of this story here by Malcolm Guite)

Nearly all the best and most precious things in the universe you can get for a halfpenny. I make an exception, of course, of the sun, the moon, the earth, people, stars, thunderstorms, and such trifles. You can get them for nothing. Also, I make an exception of another thing, which I am not allowed to mention in this paper, and of which the lowest price is a penny halfpenny. But the general principle will be at once apparent. In the street behind me, for instance, you can now get a ride on an electric tram for a halfpenny. To be on an electric tram is to be on a flying castle in a fairy tale. You can get quite a large number of brightly coloured sweets for a halfpenny. Also, you can get the chance of reading this article for a halfpenny; along, of course, with other and irrelevant matter.

But if you want to see what a vast and bewildering array of valuable things you can get at a halfpenny each you should do as I was doing last night. I was gluing my nose against the glass of a very small and dimly lit toy shop in one of the greyest and leanest of the streets of Battersea. But dim as was that square of light, it was filled (as a child once said to me) with all the colours God ever made. Those toys of the poor were like the children who buy them; they were all dirty; but they were all bright. For my part, I think brightness more important than cleanliness; since the first is of the soul, and the second of the body. You must excuse me; I am a democrat; I know I am out of fashion in the modern world.

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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

A wise man once said: “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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Athens and Jerusalem: Thomas Aquinas and the Medieval Synthesis of Reason and Faith

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The beautiful St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland

 

… Sacred doctrine is food and drink since it feeds and gives drink to the soul.  For the other sciences only illumine the intellect, but this illumines the soul.”

(Aquinas, Commentary on Hebrews 5:12)

Philosopher Peter Kreeft notes that “the medievals had a passion for order, because they believed that God had a passion for order when He designed the universe.”[1] Medieval scholars were preoccupied with discovering this order and then synthesizing it with the truths of Scripture. Because of the common grace spoken of in texts such as Romans 1 and Acts 17, all truth was God’s truth to them, even that which comes from pagan philosophers and poets. The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas epitomized this “inclusive habit of mind” that sought to bring back into Christendom all that is good, true, and beautiful.[2]  In particular, Aquinas excelled at harmonizing human reason and divine faith, displaying a keen intuition as to where they stand apart and where they overlap. Kreeft notes that he “combined faith and reason, without confusing them” by establishing that there “are some truths that are known by faith alone, like the Trinity, and some that are known by reason alone, like natural science, and some that can be known by both faith and reason, like the existence of God and the freedom of the will and the immortality of the soul.”[3] Not unlike today, the challenge was defining the boundary line between Divine Scripture and human philosophy, a challenge made all the more difficult by the inevitable fallibility of the ones surveying their borders. In his book A Shorter Summa, Peter Kreeft writes that in a humble style that comes directly to the point, with logic that is refreshingly clear and grounded in common experience, Aquinas “fulfilled more than anyone else the essential medieval program of a marriage of faith and reason, revelation and philosophy, the Biblical and the classical inheritances.”[4] As mentioned, one such synthesis is represented in Aquinas’s resolution to the apparent paradox between the existence of human free-will and the divine sovereignty of the Unmoved Mover. The way in which he was able to resolve the riddle without compromising either shows us that Aquinas’s spiritual sight was truly stereoscopic: he was able to see “two different pictures at once” without sacrificing one for the other.[5]  As a result, Thomas Aquinas was able to see more while remaining within orthodoxy’s borders. Through him, our sight is likewise broadened in that he shows us a way forward in resolving our own conflicts between faith and reason.

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Conclusion – The Medievals and Modernity

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“He understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding. His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world.”[1]

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. Of course, this self-consciousness began in the Garden, but it is particularly pronounced today. Lewis writes that our “whole attitude of the universe is inverted.”[2] “In modern, that is, in evolutionary, thought,” he writes, “Man stands at the top of a stair whose foot is lost in obscurity.”[3]

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