Numinous Lost

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Nocturne in Black and Gold, Whistler 1875

C.S. Lewis might remark that our culture’s fascination with horror films arises from the “numinous awe” that “is as old as humanity itself.”[1] In his book, The Problem of Pain, he wrote that “nothing is more certain than that man, from a very early period, began to believe that the universe was haunted by spirits.”[2] He distinguishes this kind of awe from mere fear, too: “When man passes from physical fear to dread and awe, he makes a sheer jump, and apprehends something which could never be given, as danger is, by the physical facts and logical deductions from them.”[3]

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Malick’s Modern Job: “The Tree of Life”

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 The river of temporal things hurries one along: but like a tree sprung up beside the river is our Lord Jesus Christ. He assumed flesh, died, rose again, ascended into heaven. It was His will to plant Himself, in a manner, beside the river of the things of time. Are you rushing down the stream to the headlong deep? Hold fast the tree. Is love of the world whirling you on? Hold fast Christ. For you He became temporal, that you might become eternal; because He also in such sort became temporal, that He remained still eternal.[1]

~ Saint Augustine, Homily 2 on the First Epistle of John

More than any previous era, modern Man feels small. As astronomy presses further the boundaries of the known universe, one could say that we shrink in proportion. As our cities grow larger and our buildings seem to defy gravity, this conquest of nature leaves us estranged from it. “What is Man that you are mindful of him?” asked the ancient Psalmist under the star-studded sky that greeted him each night. “What is Man?” the modern asks, as astonishing images from Hubble reveal millions of luminaries that lie forever beyond his vision’s capacity. Only silence seems to answer us from this infinite beyond. “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me,” wrote the 17th-century mathematician Blaise Pascal.[2] Ours is an age when mankind has been put in his place, one could say. What we are learning screams “Where were you when the universe began?” Our existence appears so unnecessary, so insignificant in comparison to the vastness of time and space. Pain and suffering accentuate the sense of isolation all the more.

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life addresses this alienation. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? . . . When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” The Tree of Life begins, quoting the Book of Job as its epigraph.[3] Director Terrence Malick’s experimental film is not unlike the Book of Job in that it sets this cosmic question within the context of an individual family’s loss. God answers Job with a riddle, but he was comforted, nonetheless.  As an artistic exploration of the problem of evil and unjust suffering, Malick’s The Tree of Life is as complex and puzzling as Job’s mysteries, with meaning that encompasses and transcends every camera movement. This film provides a modern retelling of Job with stunning cinematic lyricism, one in which the wonder of existence “shines through everything.”[4]

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Part Three: The Value of Augustine’s “Confessions” for Christian Apologetics

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Fra Angelico’s “Conversion of St. Augustine”

“Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you.”

“Now I had read many works of the philosophers and retained a great deal in my memory, and … What the philosophers taught seemed to me the more probable, though their power was limited to making judgment of this world and they could not pierce through to its Lord.”[1]  Augustine writes this as he looked back on the process of trying to find God in philosophy. Yet the wiser convert could see the pride at the heart of his search.  He writes, “The proud cannot find You, not even if they have skill beyond the natural to number the stars and the grains of sand, and measure out the places of the constellations and plot the courses of the planets.”[2] He laments that it was the pride of the intellect and vainglory of learning. He writes that “surely a man is unhappy even if he knows all these things but does not know You; and that man is happy who knows You even though he knows nothing of them.”[3]

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Part Two: The Value of Augustine’s “Confessions” for Christian Apologetics

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Philosophical and Psychological Road Blocks

In his Confessions, Augustine knits together the intellectual and emotional seamlessly.  Philosophy involves arguments, yes, but the true lover of wisdom will not merely contemplate, but apply the deliverances of truth to his life. Conversion for Augustine is not only an act of the intellect, but it is psychological, involving the will and emotions as well as the mind. Through him we see that the reasoning faculty can be blinded by one’s psychological state, God’s truth being darkened in proportion to one’s sin. Augustine writes that God opposes the proud and he allows this truth to be on full display as he recounts his conversion narrative.

The process of resolving one’s intellectual reservations about Christianity often involves a disentangling of legitimate conceptual difficulties with its truths from volitional resistance to its ethics. The two are tightly woven together in human nature, complex as it is. The Christian Augustine expertly utilizes Scripture, the penetrating sword that divides soul and spirit, joints and marrow in order to separate these strands.[1] In this way, he is able to cast his glance back over his life and see his motives more clearly from within the context of biblical wisdom.  “Man is a great deep, Lord,” he writes. “You number his very hairs and they are not lost in Your sight: but the hairs of his head are easier to number than his affections and the movements of his heart.”[2] G.K. Chesterton wrote that “one may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star.”[3] Augustine shows us that without God’s gentle grace, no one would be saved, no one would come to God, for who can fully penetrate the mysteries of the self?

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Part One: The Value of Augustine’s “Confessions” for Christian Apologetics

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Bishop Augustine of Hippo by Antonello da Messina

“Truly my soul finds rest in God …”

“Grant me, O Lord, to know which is the soul’s first movement toward Thee,” Augustine writes in the opening lines of what is widely acknowledged as the Western world’s preeminent autobiography.[1]  “What goal are you making for wandering around and about by ways so hard and laborious?” Augustine asks. [2]  Penned in the form of a conversation with God that brings to mind the Psalms of David, Augustine’s Confessions are the recollections of an intelligent and passionately sensitive mind as it considers its search for God in the midst of earthly distractions.  The goal is rest.  “Rest is not where you seek it,” Augustine writes, for “You seek happiness of life in the land of death, and it is not there.”[3]

Written between 397-398 A.D., one might think that such a conversion narrative would have little of value to offer the modern world. What would a fourth-century bishop in a Roman province in the northern part of Africa have to say to our twenty-first century world filled with the fruits of modern science?

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Part Two on The Philosopher Poet: On Plato’s “Republic”

 

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Plato conversing with his students, mosaic from Pompeii, first century BC

The opening dialogue of Plato’s Republic centers on the question of whether or not “morality is beneficial to its possessor – that, in fact, an individual gains happiness by being moral whether or not any external advantages accrue to him.”[1]  Plato has three characters express the general view of the pagans, none of which seem to indicate that morality is an intrinsic good. It is here that the reader gets the first glimpse of Plato’s complaint against the popular poets of his day such as Homer, Hesiod, and Simonides.  Reynolds notes that the Homeric religion, in particular, “had a tight grip on the Athenian imagination and represented a dark power against which even the love of wisdom seemed scarcely enough protection.”[2] Glaucon and Adeimantus, two of his young questioners, present the case for injustice as told by the poets and storytellers of the day.  This forms a succinct summary of the pagan beliefs about morality against which Socrates must contend.

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