Stormy Seas and Modernity

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by Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky

“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

During the opening years of the 20th century, G.K. Chesterton predicted rough waters ahead for Western civilization. “People do not know what they are doing,” he writes, “because people do not know what they are undoing.”[1] For numerous and complex reasons, a kind of religion fatigue had fallen upon Europe, and an age was dawning in which people no longer looked to Christianity as an authority. Instead, they looked to Science. Religion had been put into the box of private opinion, perhaps as a means to control it, perhaps as a means to stop the numerous religious wars that had been destabilizing culture for centuries. Regardless of the reasons, and these as complex as human nature, a divide as wide and deep as that within Christendom itself began to develop in the culture at large. The largest of these was between the so-called impartial deliverances of science and the dogmas of religion, between Reason and Faith. A mechanistic view of the universe began to take hold of the human imagination, causing it to atrophy, while a “reductive, essentially skeptical” approach to knowledge seeped into every human endeavor outside of science, including religion.[2] “If it cannot be weighed and measured,” the new scientific authorities proclaimed, “it is not really there.”[3] New technologies improved the surface of our lives, but we were forgetting who we were. In the midst of this, Darwin’s theories of natural selection and survival of the fittest offered the basis of an alternative myth that aligned well with the fierce competition of the new industrial cities. Man was in a struggle to survive in a universe that could not care less if he did just as he struggled to make a living under a factory owner that hardly knew his name. In the end, Chesterton noted that in our busy age of Science, we had forgotten man’s essence. “One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego,” he writes, “the self is more distant than any star.”[4] The fragmenting effect that all of this had on the human psyche cannot be underestimated, and we live with its effects today as we witness the destruction of some of society’s most vital and steadying institutions and ideals, like marriage and the sanctity of human life. We no longer have an integrated understanding of these, for we no longer value the imaginative faculty that could help us comprehend their essence. For the first time in history, we doubt even the existence of essences that are grounded in an immutable metaphysical reality. Instead, we shape and mold these crucial institutions to suit the moment, never asking why they were there in the first place.

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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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Darwin and the Darkling Plain of Doubt

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Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky (1817 – 1900) “Pushkin farewell to the sea”

“The one created thing which we cannot look at is the one thing in the light of which we look at everything. Like the sun at noonday, mysticism explains everything else by the blaze of its own victorious invisibility. Detached intellectualism is (in the exact sense of a popular phrase) all moonshine; for it is light without heat, and it is secondary light, reflected from a dead world.”

~ G.K. Chesterton, “Orthodoxy”[1]

On hearing the notion that Christianity is the enemy of science, G.K. Chesterton responded with the following: “It illustrates the precise fashion in which modern man has provided himself with an equally modern mythology.”[2] He noted that practically speaking, that mythology may exhibit “something of the power of a religion.” From science comes one of the great superstitions of our age, its power lying in the fact that it is seen as being anti-superstitious, even by its high priests. “The mere word ‘Science’ is already used as a sacred and mystical word in many matters of politics and ethics,” Chesterton continues, being used in all its abstractions “to threaten the most vital traditions of civilization—the family and the freedom of the citizen.”[3]

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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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“God Knows” by Minnie Louise Haskins

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“God Knows”

by Minnie Louise Haskins (1875-1957)

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

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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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