G.K. Chesterton on Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Joan D’Arc, and Jesus

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From Orthodoxy, “The Suicide of Thought”

“….Here I end (thank God) the first and dullest business of this book— the rough review of recent thought. After this I begin to sketch a view of life which may not interest my reader, but which, at any rate, interests me. In front of me, as I close this page, is a pile of modern books that I have been turning over for the purpose— a pile of ingenuity, a pile of futility. By the accident of my present detachment, I can see the inevitable smash of the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Tolstoy, Nietzsche and Shaw, as clearly as an inevitable railway smash could be seen from a balloon. They are all on the road to the emptiness of the asylum. For madness may be defined as using mental activity so as to reach mental helplessness; and they have nearly reached it. He who thinks he is made of glass, thinks to the destruction of thought; for glass cannot think. So he who wills to reject nothing, wills the destruction of will; for will is not only the choice of something, but the rejection of almost everything.

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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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Cosmic Mercies

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The Cigar Galaxy

Pizza and Boom!

by Daniel Ray

In January 2014, a small group of astronomy students was huddled about as the weather began to get a bit foggy over the glowing city lights of London town; not exactly the ideal location for observing the heavens in great detail. They ordered the standard fair of collegiate life, pizza, and settled in for what promised to be a rather ordinary evening. Before the night sky had been completely immersed in cloud cover, however, the group decided to spend some time using some features on one of their new telescopes.

That’s when they saw it.

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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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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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