Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Tunneling Out of the Chateau d'If

I vaguely remember reading a story some years ago about a race of people—it may have been the Neanderthals in the Thursday Next series—who utterly abhorred fiction, but loved reading facts. Dry facts. The drier the better. If you came to their house in the evenings, you might find them reading an automotive repair manual, or a guide to the farming of wheat. Why waste your time trying to imagine things that never actually happened?

That’s how I feel at the moment, which is why I’ve been reading The Count of Monte Cristo with voracious interest for the last few days. It is like a parable from God—a parable of faith. The great themes of the story are much more explicit in the novel than in my beloved film adaptation. In the novel, the Abbé Faria tells anyone who will listen that he has a fabulous treasure worth millions which he’s willing to lavish in all its abundance on the first person who will let him out of his cell. Each of the governors and deputies who visits the prison comes away thinking he’s mad.

But Edmond believes him. Edmond becomes his adopted son. Edmond breaks out of prison and travels to the island where the treasure is supposedly hidden. And there he becomes richer than any man alive.

Edmond believed; Edmond acted. It’s hard to imagine a more moving demonstration of faith. That treasure was available all along for anyone who wanted it; but only one person believed. And his confidence propelled him to act, and he became a different man. The story of Edmond’s transformation in the prison from naïve and illiterate young sailor to a man of intelligence, command, and charisma has numinous power. It’s like a vibrant stone which never stops radiating its own perfection. You can draw from it again and again. Such is the power of myth.

Some of the set pieces emblazon themselves on the memory with the vividness of an unforgettable sunrise:

Little by little, the wind subsided. Westwards across the sky rolled huge grey clouds which seemed to have been discoloured by the storm. Patches of blue sky reappeared with stars that shone brighter than ever. Soon, in the east, a long reddish band lit up the undulating blue-black line on the horizon. The waves danced and instantly a light sped across their crests; transforming each one into a mane of gold. Day was breaking.

Dantés remained motionless and silent before this great spectacle, as if seeing it for the first time. Indeed, in all the years that he had been at the Chateau d’If he had forgotten it. He turned back to look at the fortress, sweeping his eyes across the whole arc of the land and the sea. The dark pile rose out of the midst of the waves with the imposing majesty common to all motionless objects which seem at once to watch and to command.

This is much more than just an interesting visual description of daybreak. We feel it all the more deeply because it’s the first hint of sunlight the novel has given in hundreds of pages. And the whole span of waiting that precedes it connects us with Edmond at the level of the heart. He, like the reader, has earned this sunrise.

It is a suffering which makes the transformation in his character all the more believable and haunting:

‘Monsieur,’ Caderousse said, nervously holding out one hand, while the other wiped the sweat that was beading on his brow, ‘Oh, Monsieur, do not jest with a man’s happiness and despair!’

‘I know what happiness is, and what is despair, and I never just with feelings.’

There’s an unforced confidence and dignity in all the Count’s actions which is central to the whole substance of the story. It’s one of the few aspects of the novel which the recent movie adaptation got absolutely right. And I suppose it was this which I secretly coveted in all my first adventures.

I think, at last, I may be finding it.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

"Lo! That Smiling Sky, and This Unsounded Sea": Reason and Free Will in the Psychology of Aquinas


I was impressed—after two or three hours of hard reading—to find this argument against crazy old Ahab in the seventh chapter of my book on Aquinas’s theology of human nature:

Consider a case where I am taken hostage and forcibly dragged along as a human shield. Here it is clearly not the case that I contribute nothing to the action—I contribute the shield. What can be said is that my desires do not concur in the action. As the Treatise puts it, “we call that violent which is contrary to the inclination of a thing” (82.1c). Aquinas seems to have improved on Aristotle in this regard.

Aquinas believes, as we have seen, that everything acts for an end. It does not straightaway follow that he believes everything has some appetite. What needs to be asserted, in addition, is that everything acts naturally for an end. The world might be such that this is not the case. We might imagine that some things have no natural ends of their own to pursue, and that they act only when forced to act. More radically, we might imagine that everything in nature works this way, and that God, or some cosmic puppeteer, moves objects when he sees fit. This is not the role Aquinas gives to God. Aquinas’ God is not a control freak; he delegates causal authority, giving his creatures the capacity to pursue their appropriate end. In the case of natural agents, those ends are specified by God, but nevertheless God gives his creatures their own internal means of achieving those ends. “Everything that comes from God takes on some nature that directs it toward an ultimate end. So natural appetite must be found in all creatures that have an end” (III SENT 27.1.2c). Acting naturally toward some end requires having an inclination toward that end. Such inclinations are what Aquinas calls appetites.

As Pasnau will go on to show, while the actions of plants and non-rational creatures are guided by internal mechanisms which give them only a limited amount of free will—when sheep are being pursued by a wolf, their instinctive reaction is to turn and run—humans are given a much broader scope for determining their choices. Our decisions are made, not by something outside, but by something within us. Thus (as Zoellner and Dr. Herbert have both pointed out), Ahab’s analogies in the famous “Symphony” passage are deliberately designed to undermine the point they ostensibly make:

But if the great sun move not of himself; but is an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I? By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea! Look! see yon Albicore! who put it into him to chase and fang that flying-fish? Where do murderers go, man! Who’s to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar?

Ahab confuses not only natural objects, but also rational with non-rational creatures, to his own damnation. I want to see if I can break down the complexity of Pasnau’s broader argument in Chapter 7—I would love to have a proper understanding of desire and freedom. This is the sort of learning you carry with you forever.

7.1 Natural Appetite

“Of the human soul’s various capacities, only two—intellect and will—distinguish us as human.” According to John Damascene (and by extension Aquinas), we are made in the image of God by virtue of being “intellectual, free in our decisions, and capable on our own.” (I would question the omission of love from this list, but I suppose love of the kind God desires is only really possible for someone who possesses those three qualities). Freedom and capability both depend on the capacity of will.

What we call “the will” is really the rational appetite: it is an appetitive power guided by reason. (As we know from Thomas Aquinas and the Passions, an appetite is what gives us a certain inclination towards something—for example, a stone is inclined to fall down; it is drawn to the earth). However, “in our case these inclinations come in the form of desires,” which a stone has not. “So the will operates, producing desires, and these desires in turn lead to action on the part of our mind or body.” The will produces inclination, which leads some further agent—the soul’s power of motion—to produce movement to that end. As Aquinas writes, “Every animal that moves does so in order to pursue something desired and intended.”

The assertion that all things have appetite “is an indirect consequence of Aquinas’s teleological view that every agent—that is, anything that does anything—acts for an end… Fire spreads, ice makes things cold, the mind thinks. Objects do not produce random effects, but are inclined in certain specific directions.” Of course, an agent may act towards an end without possessing any cognitive sense of that end. Some things direct themselves towards an end (humans, for example, and animals to a lesser extent), and others are directed towards their end by something else, in two different ways: one, “only by being forced and moved by that which directs them,” or else through an “internal principle,” such as fire, which is “inclined by its form toward… generating that which is like it” (80.1c).

7.2 Voluntary Agents

However, if all desires were strictly natural, animals would be greatly inhibited in the range of their choices. This is why they have also been given a second, more complex kind of appetite: animal or sensory appetite. Cognition supplies information, which provides the capacity for appetites of wider scope. “The external senses, memory, and the estimative power all contribute to shaping animal appetite. Indeed, the central purpose of the various sensory capacities is to ensure that animals are motivated in the necessary ways. For ‘the movement and action of an animal follow apprehension’ (78.4c).”

Aquinas then argues that the animal appetite is a special capacity of the soul, not merely an extension of animal cognition. “The appetites possessed by our cognitive powers are natural appetites, and as a result they are characteristically limited in scope. Sight, for example, has an inclination for seeing. Animal appetite, in contrast, is something over and above these various natural appetites. It is animal appetite that looks out for the needs of the whole organism: at this level an animal desires a thing ‘not because it is appropriate to the act of this or that capacity,… but because it is appropriate to the animal as a whole [simpliciter]’ (80.1 ad 3). Animal appetite is what translates sensory information about the environment into an inclination based on what is appropriate to an organism of that kind.” (For example, “Whereas plants move themselves toward a predetermined end, animals are capable of determining their own end, by taking in information from the surrounding environment”). “This is something over and above the cognitive capacities.”

Then Pasnau makes the crucial point: “This capacity to be aware of the environment, hence to grasp the possibility of acting for one end or another, gives animals a partial claim on being voluntary agents”:

Positioned halfway between natural… and rational appetite (the human will), animal appetite puts its possessors in a murky gray area between freedom and necessity, responsibility and determinism. As we will see, Aquinas believes that animals are voluntary agents, but not fully voluntary. They take part somewhat in freedom, and are capable of making decisions, but they are not capable of making free decisions. By examining the capacities and limitations of this animal appetite, we can better come to understand what makes human beings free and responsible agents.

Animals may possess a sense of their environment, for example, but cannot apprehend the character of the things they desire, nor the relationship between means and ends. As a consequence, animals lack the deliberative faculty inherent in humans, and, because they are incapable of deliberation, “are not voluntary agents in the fullest sense.” Deliberation requires reason and “the capacity to grasp universal concepts”; hence only rational creatures can be fully voluntary. Animals can make certain kinds of judgments based on the capacity of their estimative power, but there is no comparison, no inference, no deliberation. For example, as Aquinas notes, swallows all make their nests in the same way, and while bees are known for their diligence, their diligence only extends to a certain area—the craft of making honeycombs. They are limited in judgment. Moreover, “an animal, at the sight of something desirable, cannot not want that thing, because… animals do not have control over their inclination” (QDV 22.4c).

Pasnau concludes, “In looking carefully at the case of nonhuman animals, Aquinas is working his way toward a genuinely explanatory account of freedom and indeterminacy, an account on which we can point to the exact respect in which various animals are and are not free.”

7.3 Rational Choice

Aquinas establishes the following conclusions in Question 83:

a1. Free decision is a consequence of rational judgment.
a2. Free decision is a capacity, not an act or a disposition.
a3. Free decision is the capacity to make choices.
a4. Free decision is the same capacity as will.

There’s nothing very controversial in the last three statements; so of course Pasnau spends the bulk of his time on an explication of the first: “Human beings necessarily have free decision, from the very fact that they are rational.”

Because human beings make judgments “from a certain rational comparison,” and not by some irresistible instinct, of the sort that compels the sheep to flee when the wolf attacks, we are acting by free judgment, or “free decision,” the ability to judge by rational comparison (collatio). Pasnau writes, “Although reason might at first glance suggest one line of action, matters are never so clear that there are not other possibilities. Practical deliberation does not have the inevitability of mathematics.”

Aquinas then gives two reasons why there is plenty of room for indeterminacy in the decisions with which we are presented (82.2c). First, “there are some particular goods that have no necessary connection with happiness, because a person can achieve happiness without these.” (And in fact, as Pasnau notes, most things are not directly connected to our happiness). Secondly, because in this life we don’t adhere to God with complete certainty, we are unable to recognize with total clarity what should be done or not done at a given moment. “Thus,” writes Pasnau, “all of our actions, even the most important ones, are free and undetermined.”

But in what does deliberation consist? In our ability to second-guess. “To have free decision is to be capable of such second-guessing, to be able to contemplate whether our first inclination is really right, or whether we might be better off doing things in another way. Other animals, in contrast, have no such ability. The swallow is determined to build its nest a certain way, the dog is determined to bark when provoked. Their actions are determined ‘because they are unaware of the reason for their judgment’ (QDV 24.2c).”

Pasnau notes, “To be free from determinism and necessity is to be capable of inspecting the reasons behind our judgments, and to change our mind should circumstances warrant.” Aquinas describes this freedom variously as either “free decision,” “free judgment,” or “freedom of will.” (Aquinas does not often speak of free will, because the desired final end of all creatures is happiness [“the complete and self-sufficient good that is the ultimate end of human life”], and it is impossible for a creature deliberately to do something which would make it unhappy, except for some greater purpose which it expects to bring happiness in the end; and the will, strictly speaking, is that desire for happiness as the ultimate end, which no one can subvert.)

However, since humans lack a perfect understanding of that in which happiness consists, and since our specific means of attaining happiness is not determined by nature, as it is with swallows and bears, we are left with a broad range of choices. “We can choose freely because we can think in general terms about what happiness might consist in. Accordingly, Aquinas often explains our capacity for free decision in terms of our capacity for understanding universals.”

Pasnau concludes, “His interest is in the mechanisms that make free decision possible. In his view, the best argument for the existence of free decision is a clear understanding of these mechanisms. Once we see that free decision can be accounted for in terms of other capacities that we don’t doubt ourselves to have, there is no reason to fear that free decision is something unnatural or mysterious. As usual, Aquinas is working to take the mystery out of human nature.”

7.4 Freedom

In the fourth and final section of Chapter 7, Pasnau seeks to gauge to what extent human decision is determined by reason and will. It is crucial to the metaphysics of Aquinas that the will is moved of itself, that it is not moved by another capacity. “Not only human beings as a whole are their own causes, but even the will in particular is its own cause. ‘The will is in control of its act, and has it to will and not to will. This would not be the case if it did not have the power to move itself to will’ (1a2ae 9.3sc).” Thus the will is the cause of its own choices.

Why is this so important? Up to this point in the chapter, Aquinas has largely insisted on the role of the judgment in shaping the decisions of the will: first, in the sense that the will’s freedom is explained in terms of the intellect’s capacity to deliberate; second, in the sense that the will is dependent on the intellect for making its decisions (“it is necessary that every motion of the will be preceded by an apprehension”). The will cannot operate without some sort of causal determination—a determination which, so far as we know, comes from reason.

So far, then, the will seems completely subservient to the reason: “like an administrator whose only task is to rubber-stamp directives sent down from above, the will seems relegated to the rather meaningless formality of endorsing what it cannot help but endorse.”

But if that interpretation is the right one, it raises the question why Aquinas didn’t simply eliminate the will from his system altogether. Moreover, “Human choices would seem severely constrained by the findings of… deliberation. We would seem necessitated, not by the instincts of nature, but by the cold process of reason… We would not, in particular, be able to go beyond or against reason. Further, such intellectualism seems badly at odds with human nature. Our choices are guided by reason, clearly. But since when are human choices determined by reason?” We are not Houhouhnyms; if our will was completely subjected to reason, we would not be free.

Aquinas responds by establishing a complicated causal relationship between reason and will. “From one end, the will is the efficient cause that moves the intellect.” In other words, “the reason considers what the will tells it to consider” (or, in Aquinas’s delightful phrasing, “the will wills the intellect’s cognizing”). From the other end, “the intellect moves the will”—not, however, by exercising efficient causality, but by “supplying information about the will’s final cause, the object that has been judged to be good.” Thus the intellect does not push the will forward; rather, as Aquinas writes, “the intellect rules the will not as if by inclining it toward what it tends toward, but by showing it where it ought to tend” (QDV 22.11 ad 5). Thus the intellect “never necessitates any choice on the part of the will” (p. 227).

“The will’s choices are influenced by reason, not determined by reason.” Yet, as a contingent power, it must be determined by something. And what is that something, for Aquinas? It is the will itself. “The will’s movement comes directly from the will and from God” (QDM 3.3c). “Aquinas even suggests at times that this self-movement is essential for free decision… As regards determination, the will is moved by its object, through intellect. As regards exercise, however, ‘it is clear first that the will is moved by itself.’ The content of the will’s choice is determined by intellect, then, but the choice itself is determined by the will” (227).

But Aquinas apparently has an even more interesting point to make. “The will moves itself… in cases where the will’s choice to pursue a particular choice is motivated by its choice to pursue a broader goal.” For example, I will to become healthy, so I will to take medicine. Here there are two tiers of willing—we will one thing for the sake of willing something higher—what Pasnau calls “higher-order volition” (preferences, options, choices). Thus we are distinguished from animals and all other lower creatures not only by our ability to make rational judgments, but also by our ability to have volitions that direct our volitions.

Now Pasnau drives home his point:

To see how Aquinas is giving the will a real role in the process of choice, we need to focus not on sudden desires for a certain end, but on long-term dispositions that govern our day-to-day choices. The will does not simply endorse the passing judgments of reason, in a neutral fashion, but subjects those judgments to the higher-order aims that shape who we are. The will, in other words, contains habits or dispositions that influence the course of its operation (see 1ae2ae 50.5). Reason may tell us to cheat, but the will can insist on honesty; reason may counsel silence, but the will may urge us to speak. In such cases it is the will that is in control, in virtue of its fixed dispositions and desires, which hold independently of reason’s dictates (considered in the short term). The will cannot entirely repudiate reason, but the will shapes reason just as much as reason shapes will. The will can, for instance, force reason to stop thinking about something. Also, the will can direct reason to look at something in a different way. (For example, don’t think about what you might buy with the money you found; think about how happy someone will be to get it back.) In such cases our higher-order desires take charge over the process of deliberation, turning our thoughts in the direction in which we want them to go.

Aquinas gains much from complicating his account this way. First, he connects his action theory with his moral theory, inasmuch as crucial virtues (justice and charity) just are dispositions of the will (see 1a2ae 56.6). Second, he gives his account an added measure of realism. Human choices can now be explained not just in terms of rational calculations, but also in terms of our deeper commitments. Third, free decision now takes hold in another dimension. Until now that freedom has seemed to consist entirely in reason’s capacity to make one judgment or another—its being open to alternatives. Now we can see how the will might be free to accept or reject that judgment. The dictates of reason may or may not conform to our higher-order volitions.

Ultimately, human freedom remains rooted in reason. Our higher-order volitions themselves are determined by reason—or, if they are not, then at least they are subject to change (hence not necessitated) in virtue of our rational capacities. This is as it should be, not just because it is what Aquinas constantly says, but because we should not aspire to give the will the sort of freedom that would sever it from the control of reason. Aquinas views the relationship between reason and will as a back-and-forth exchange, extending over the course of our lives so that, time after time, ‘it is again necessary that the motion of will precede counsel, and counsel precede the act of will. And since this cannot go on to infinity, it is necessary to postulate, with respect to the will’s first motion, that the will… is moved by something external, by the impulse of which the will begins to will’ (QDM 6c).’ This initial impulse comes from God, who not only creates the human soul but somehow puts the soul into motion, beginning the long dialogue between our rational powers.

In other words, God has structured our souls in the most perfect way possible for possessing and exercising freedom of the will. How beautiful!

I think of that oft-quoted line in the Psalms, “I will praise Thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14). In the past whenever I’ve thought of that verse—and I think when most people think of that verse—we think of the body, which is certainly marvelous in itself, but because we can’t see the soul in its beauty and complexity, its wonders pass us by unseen. Yet the body is not all; the soul is an exhilarating thing—not least because of what it says to us about the One who fashioned it. “For what are the comprehensible terrors of man compared with the interlinked terrors and wonders of God!”

P. S. I think the Spirit of God may actually be moving me to study the things I’m studying right now… Earlier while I was editing, I put my iTunes playlist on random, and almost the first track that played was the eighteenth canto of Dante’s Purgatory, in which Virgil apparently instructs Dante in Aquinas’s revelation of the nature of reason and freedom of the will:

When he had completed his argument, the lofty scholar
Looked with eagerness at my face, to see if I was satisfied.
And I, with a new thirst, was silent, since within I wondered,
“Could he perhaps be displeased with all these questions
Of mine?” But that pure father, who had recognized
The timid longing I would not express, spoke first,
And thus encouraged me to speak.
I said,
“Master, my mind is made so sharp by the light you shine,
I see clearly now all that your words speak of, or analyze.
Therefore I pray you, define love for me,
Which is, as you tell me, the minister of every good deed,
And its contrary.”
He said, “Focus your intellect’s sharp eyes
On me, and let the error of the blind who lead the blind
Be evident to you. The soul, being created quick to love,
Responds to everything that pleases it, as soon as pleasure
Wakes it into life. From what is real, your power to apprehend
Takes an image which it displays in you, forcing your mind
To turn towards it; and if turned, the soul inclines
Steadily to it. This propensity then is love,
Just as flames ascend, because the nature of fire compels it
To fly to that sphere and element where it will last longer,
So does the soul when caught up in desire
Move the loving mind; and until the thing it loves
Has made it glad, will never rest. See how far
From the truth they have wandered, they who insist
That any kind of love in itself is good love, and praiseworthy.
Love’s substance seems worthy to be admired,
But not each seal is good, though the wax is.”
“What you say, and my own attending wit,” I answered,
“Clearly show me what love is; but that has filled me
With still greater doubt. If love comes from without,
And the soul moves only on that one foot,
What merit is there then in going straight or crooked?”
And he to me: “I can explain to you as much
As reason sees; as for the rest, wait for Beatrice.
It is the work of faith. Every substantial form,
Which is at once bound to matter, and yet distinct,
Contains within itself a certain power, unknown,
Unseen, except in its effects, just as green leaves display
The life in plants. Man does not know the source
Of his knowledge of primal notions, nor why he turns
To desire’s primal objects, which are in you as the instinct
To make honey in bees. Such primal will deserves
No blame or praise. Now, so all other longings may conform
To this first will, there is innate within you the power of reason,
Which ought to be the keeper of the threshold of consent.
That is the principle on which is based the judgment of your merit,
As it garners and winnows good and evil loves.
Those men whose reason reached the roots of things
Learned of this liberty innate in man. Their endowment
To the world is ethics. Even if we grant that necessity
Is the source of every love that fires you, you still have the power
To restrain such love. This noble power is what Beatrice means
By freedom of the will. Remember that, if she should ever
Speak of it to you.”

See the union of theology and poetry! It really can be done. Chesterton of course wrote the definitive word on the subject in Chapter 6 of his “biography,” Aquinas: The Dumb Ox:

He very specially possessed the philosophy that inspires poetry; as he did so largely inspire Dante's poetry. And poetry without philosophy has only inspiration, or, in vulgar language, only wind. He had, so to speak, the imagination without the imagery… It is often difficult to understand, simply because the subjects are so difficult that hardly any mind, except one like his own, can fully understand them. But he never darkens it by using words without knowledge, or even more legitimately, by using words belonging only to imagination or intuition. So far as his method is concerned, he is perhaps the one real Rationalist among all the children of men.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The First Temptation of Christ

“And when the tempter came to him he, said, ‘If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.’”

— Matthew 4:3

“Tuesday night, at the Bible study,

We lift our hands and pray over your body

But nothing ever happens.”

Sufjan Stevens, Casimir Pulaski Day

Chapter 6 was badly gutted in the course of writing Chapter 5, but it is healing. I have gone back and added two or three pages near the beginning in which I more fully explain the nature of the spell that I was under, and a bit of what it’s like to inhabit another dimension.

As always, revelation is the base on which the edifice is built. Not the world-shattering revelations I was given when I first wrote the chapter, on the nature of evil, the flamingos, and what not—those have all been shipped out now to Chapter 5 and points beyond—but revelations about the particular nature of my enchantment. The first one is this—that I really did enter another realm on Doppelganger Day; as Tyler said two summers ago, when he first read the story, “You went in; you went in, and you didn’t come back out.” I remained in that realm until my Senior year of college. Thus, in a very real sense, I know what it’s like to exist in another dimension; I’ve done it. Literally I’ve had an experience which people read about in fairy tales. And it was terrible.

The second revelation is, a spell was laid upon me so that no one would listen when I tried to tell my story. This spell was only broken, like the others, in my final year of college. Mr. Blankenship, Ginger, Taylor, Allison, all treated the story with varying degrees of unseriousness. By the end of my freshman year, I had given up trying to tell it. The first person to listen with anything other than bemused incredulity was Bethany, on the night of December 1, 2007. And she was deeply serious about it. It was like finally hearing a therapist or counselor tell you that throttling your child is not a method of punishment which decent parents typically employ—all your life long you had suspected as much, but to hear someone say it is almost unbelievably relieving, and you don’t feel quite as crazy, or as guilty about it, and you kind of want to cry a little and hug the therapist.

“Merciful heavens,” said Bethany. “Your town was like a Frank Peretti novel.” And, now that I’ve gone back and reread The Visitation, I can see that she was right.

The Visitation… I read it in the first week of 2002, in the weeks after my arrest for over-zealous prophesying, and once or twice more in the following year, but strangely haven’t read it at all since the events of Senior year. In retrospect, it is almost eerily resonant. The narrator, Travis Jordan, is, of course, a former Pentecostal pastor, and the book is really two separate stories woven into one. The first story recounts his youth and growing up, his early zeal to take his town for Christ, and an interminable list of shattering experiences—a Bible study that becomes a weekly forum for delivering prophecies that becomes, in the end, an avenue for healings that never occur; a relationship with a girl who moves away, becomes a Unitarian, and marries someone else; a vision-fueled trek across the continent to Minnesota, where, after eagerly explaining to a series of counselors at the headquarters of Billy Graham Ministries that God has sent him there to play the banjo, he is given an application and sent out the door; a church healing service that goes badly when the girl at whom the prayers are directed falls into a diabetic coma.

For much of the book, even as he marries and becomes a pastor, Jordan struggles to believe in the reality of God. (I don’t say “struggles to believe that God is real,” because there is a subtle, but enormous distinction between the two.) It is this part of the book, I can see, that affected me most, though, strangely, it is the second story—in which diabolical miracles are breaking out everywhere and the town is in chaos—that more closely resembles my own experience. After the double humiliation of his trip to Minnesota, and the breakup of his first relationship, he writes (with a certain trace of bitterness):

And then the dominoes began to fall.

That’s the caveat that comes with being ‘led by the Spirit’: if you dare to question one thing, you have to question everything.

With Amber gone, what did that say about all those visions, signs, and prophecies that God supposedly gave us? What did the Minneapolis debacle tell me about my encoded prophecy scribbled on the wall of the crab boat? Could I finally admit that boxcars with a big letter ‘I’ on them belonged to Intermountain Railways and were commonplace in most every major train yard in every major city in the country?…

As to the Kenyon-Bannister prayer meetings, the original fire had gone out for want of logs on the hearth. The Kenyons and Bannisters were still having their meetings and I suppose Mr. Kenyon was still the bishop of the island, but nothing more remained.

David Kenyon had gone back east to college. Bernadette Jones had gotten pregnant—contrary to Mrs. Bannister’s prophecy, Barry the boyfriend never became a Christian and they never furthered God’s kingdom together. Karla Dickens was living in Seattle and pursuing a business degree, while Andy Smith had gotten his girlfriend pregnant, married her, and was currently trying to make a living as a composer and piano teacher…

We used to be young, unstoppable soldiers of the cross, led by the Spirit, taking the world for Christ as we marched arm in arm. There was going to be a great revival, starting with us. We were on fire and those who were lukewarm would have to get on fire too or eat our dust.

But my fellow soldiers weren’t there anymore. While I was chasing visions, signs, and prophecies all the way to Minneapolis, each of them caught a different train and left while I wasn’t looking.

In mid-October, I was eighteen, in love, full of the Spirit, and on a train bound for Minneapolis. By mid-January, I was nineteen and a nobody with nowhere to go, sitting on the bed in my room at home, plunking absently on a brown, fifty-dollar banjo and feeling a new and frightening kind of loneliness. Jesus seemed far away, and strangely enough, I was content to leave him there. I didn’t want to talk to him; I feared and distrusted anything he might say to me.

I was saved, sanctified, born-again, and Spirit-filled, but Jesus and I were strangers.

“I feared and distrusted anything he might say to me.” Therein, I think, lies the key to my entire experience these past seven years.

I begin to see now exactly what happened. It’s all so obvious, I don’t know how I could have missed it. My disdain for healing services, my fear of charismatic leaders, my continual suspicion that I’m trapped inside a cult I can’t escape, my suspicious uneasiness towards visions, words of affirmation, marriage prophecies, calling prophecies, inner healing prophecies, large-scale geopolitical prophecies, dream prophecies—even, or especially, the ones I make myself—the very substance of my faith, or lack of it, is bound up in this book.

I read it at a most impressionable moment—in the weeks immediately after my arrest, when I was hurt, and embarrassed, and soft, and sensitive, and open to correction. In a way, I must have felt like Michael Elliot, the young man in the story who accepts the role of John the Baptist for the false messiah, Brandon Nichols. Near the end of the story, he hears a voice telling him to walk off a pier and onto the water—he does so, with messy results. And I, I had just spent three months proclaiming to anyone who would listen that America was in terrible danger, and that unless we repented, we were facing a full-scale military invasion. And, you know, that might even be true; but the prophecies on which I based my proclamations were, in hindsight, almost laughably absurd; my manner had been impolitic and vaguely sinister; my zeal was fueled not so much by love for God, or even for my classmates, but a remorseless, unquenchable need to be right about something.

It’s time I forced myself to face this. The reason the first half of my most recent revision of Chapter 2 was so thin is because, once again, I lacked revelation about the dynamics at play. I was scared; I had thought I was a prophet, and I wasn’t; and, after reading The Visitation and Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle—in the same three-day period!—I began to question everything I thought I knew. In such a state, at such a time, I was dismayingly open to the possibility—especially if it was articulated by someone I trusted—that the world of visions, dreams, prophecies, and impressions was a self-deception crafted by the zealous from a need to feel important in a cold, lonely world. Reading through my journals now, it’s obvious to me that my long struggle with unbelief didn’t begin during my last year of high school, though it certainly helped; when I was twelve and thirteen I had earnestly, wholeheartedly believed that God was calling me to greatness, that He wanted me to be a writer, that my life would prove an adventure of the highest magnitude, and that He really, truly loved me. And then, something happened. My prophecies failed to come true. I was arrested. Other people were thrust into leadership on campus, or seized it, and I was left out in the cold. See the cat? See the cradle? I had thought He was choosing me for some unfathomably awesome purpose, and I waited, and I waited, and life passed me by. All before I turned sixteen. We all create a movie in our heads, and in my movie, I had taken on the role of the narrator in The Visitation—not a burned-out former pastor, but a burned-out high school student.

And really, no wonder I’ve gone through such a wasteful, howling world of trouble feeling any sort of kinship for the people who are close to me. It was only on reading this book again that I finally realized, I don’t actually really believe in anything we do. I go to healing services, and people give testimony of how they were healed, and I ascribe it to suggestion. The first night I meet Debbie, she informs me she’s had a prophecy for ten years that one day she would meet a man who was living, and writing, a series of novels like the Left Behind books, only in real life—a prophecy I’ve had about myself for years and years and years, to the point where every time anyone prayed over me, I asked God to tell them—and the moment she told me, I brushed it away as either a remarkably strange coincidence, or the work of the Devil (who is apparently much in the business of affirming people’s callings). I don’t really believe in healings, visitations, marital or any other kind of prophecy, direct, life-altering encounters of the sort that I’ve been having lately, words of knowledge, words of affirmation, or the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. No wonder I don’t really seem to know what I’m doing here! No wonder I lack the enthusiasm, the light, the exuberance of all my friends!

Incidentally… when I got to the part where Travis’s wife dies of cancer… I cried. I don’t know why. Women dying early in novels and movies always makes me sad. And then, later that night, I watched Up, and it required the rallying of all my resolve just to hold myself together—a foolish choice, perhaps, but one I felt necessary under the circumstances.

At first I was angry with the book. In many ways, it didn’t seem to be a Christian novel. As I wrote at the end of my newest revision of the sixth chapter, “It depicts a world where God seems altogether powerless, and sometimes even non-existent; there is a supernatural realm, to be sure, but it is not of God. The only miracles that occur in the course of the story, with one exception, are the work of Satan.” Now, however, I realize how intentional that was.

The revelation came to me on Saturday night during worship. I was in the bookstore reading Pope Benedict’s book, Jesus of Nazareth. There is a chapter on the temptation of Christ. Benedict explains that the first temptation of Satan—to turn stones into bread—is not a temptation confined to a single historical moment, for the Devil offers it in every age. “If You are the Son of God…” he says. “If You are God, prove Yourself. Feed the masses, they are hungry. If You were really good, it wouldn’t be a problem for You. Show Yourself. Why do You always hide Yourself?” Precisely the questions I have spent the last seven years asking.

There is a curious synergy here with The Brothers Karamazov—in which the Church accepts the three temptations so foolishly refused by Jesus, mystery, miracle, and authority—but also with The Visitation, in which, after pulling bread out of nowhere and throwing it into a crowd, Brandon Nichols basically declaims, “I am the better messiah! I provide for my people arafghhahahahrrraaaaaaaa…” eventually expending himself in an orgiastic riot of bitterness.

The Pope writes:

“Christ is being challenged to establish his credibility by offering evidence for his claims. This demand for proof is a constantly recurring theme in the story of Jesus’ life. Again and again he is reproached for having failed to prove himself sufficiently, for having hitherto failed to work that great miracle that will remove all ambiguity and every contradiction so as to make it indisputably clear for everyone who and what he is or is not.”

“That great miracle that will remove all ambiguity and every contradiction.” I remember writing in what was once Chapter 12, “The Madness of Mr. Blankenship,” about how exasperating it was that I could never definitively prove the reality of my experiences, one way or another. They always hovered on the threshold of ambiguity. Faith was needed. Yet the evil things that happened were somehow always clearer, more apparent. True, I had as much trouble proving them as I did anything else, but, as I’ve written before, they were much more showy, much more ostentatious, and their own veracity—for me at least—was never in doubt.

Yet God—where was He? Or, as the Fray sang a while back:

Where were You

When everything was falling apart?

All my days spent by a telephone

That never rang

When all I needed was a call

That never came

From the corner of First and Amistad

Lost and insecure

You found me

You found me

Lying on the floor



Why’d You have to wait?

Where were You?

Where were You?

Just a little late

You found me

You found me

Yet it is not in the nature of God to be abrupt and overt. He is there; He is there. But only the humble will see Him. The rest will go on searching for miracles, wonders, signs, and never hear the call of love.

And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still, small voice.

Pope Benedict goes on to say:

“If you follow the will of God, you know that in spite of all the horrible things that happen to you, you will never lose a final refuge. You know the foundation of the world is love, so that even when no human being can or will help you, you may go on trusting in the one who loves you.”

And that is what I am learning. In the fourth chapter of my introduction to Aquinas, the author explains how the being of God is totally distinct from ours, except in the fact that it is being. We share the foundation of everything, being itself, with our Lord, and all that is, partakes on its most basic level of this primordial element. Thus, in a very real sense, the foundation of the world is God—is love. And “no good thing will He uphold” from those who seek His face.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

In Which Aquinas Answers Rebecca's Contention with Job

“The name of the Lord is truly blessed by men inasmuch as they have knowledge of His goodness, namely that He distributes all things well and does nothing unjustly.”
— Aquinas,
Commentary on Job, Chapter I, Section iii

Near the beginning of October Rebecca and I fell into an argument which concluded (as all such theological arguments tend to do) with Rebecca remarking, “Well, what about Job?”

And I sat there in silence. I knew what she meant, of course: “Why did God permit Satan to kill all Job’s sons and daughters, his cattle and sheep, his menservants and maidservants, and wrack his poor, frail frame with pestilential boils? And then leave his nagging wife and disputatious friends alive?”

It is a question with which I have been confronted many times in my life. Dr. Hopkins led us on a skeptic’s journey through the book of Job in Philosophy of Religion, a journey in which our final discussion (on the mountain-rending, glacier-cleaving terror of God’s concluding discourse) was memorably interrupted by the unwelcome intrusion of a singing telegram. I have also studied with interest the answer which Carl Jung formulated in Answer to Job, which was, in many respects, the culmination of his life’s work. Jung essentially maintains that God possesses both a light side and a dark side; that in encountering Job, He was confronted for the first time ever with the evil in His own nature; and that this was the moment when He decided to incarnate as Christ, and experience what it was like to be a man among men. When Christ re-ascended into heaven, Satan was cast down to the earth—God, you might say, was suppressing His shadow; but as all suppressed things eventually reemerge with still more potent ardor, evil is beginning to erupt into the natural realm, true, absolute evil, not the mere “absence of good” which Augustine argued was the real essence of evil (a negation, not an actual substance), but evil as a living entity, which is why the twentieth century saw tyrants, holocausts, and conflagrations on a global scale.

Which, whatever your perspective, is a fascinating theory. Probably not true at all. But fascinating.

Whatever the reason, though, I had never actually discovered the true explanation for Job’s sufferings, which is why whenever someone like Dr. Hopkins or Rebecca came along with questions like, “Well, might there, perhaps, be injustice in God?” I never had an answer. Besides all which, I wasn’t sure there was an answer; God could be as cruel and controlling as He wanted, and as long I didn’t ask too many questions, kept my head down and discharged my duties faithfully, what mattered it to me?

But then in the last few months I began to discover, through personal experience—the only way you really ever come to learn these things—that God is neither cruel nor controlling; that He is, in fact, light, and that in Him dwells no darkness at all (1 Jn. 1:5). In fact, as Tyler and Aquinas both argue, I felt controlled by God because I was controlled by sin. This is how it works: We are under the illusion that we have free will. We are not (Jn. 8:30-32). As even Melville knew, the soul that gives itself over to evil abdicates its freedom to choose (see Moby-Dick, Chapter 44). But Aquinas comes at it from another perspective. For him, the will is the slave of the judgment. The person who possesses a false understanding of God is goaded by his misperceptions (which are generally, on the deepest levels, willful) into acting against Him. It is only as the judgment aligns with the truth, as we see God for Who He truly is, the only Source and End of all good, that the will is freed to trust Him in surrender. We are thus incapable of following, or even loving Him, until we see Him as He is. We are enslaved to lies, and only Truth can free us. Thus my recent prayer: “Lord, grant me knowledge that leads to sight, and sight that leads to love.”

But the important thing to note here is the back-and-forth, symmetrical, parallel nature of it. Take my own life (please!) as an example. I viewed God as a tyrant, a maniacal, all-controlling despot. That He is not. But my perceptions were reinforced by the fact that whenever I wanted to refrain from committing a particular sin (any sin), I found myself unable. This occurred for a combination of reasons: one, because I was trying to fulfill the law (though I wouldn’t have called it that) to earn God’s favor, which I had already, and trying to fulfill the law can only draw you into further sin. You need the assistance of the Spirit of God. Two, I was unable to refrain from committing those sins precisely because of the way I viewed God, which made my will captive to sin. I felt controlled, and I was, not by God, but by my perception of God as all-controlling. It was my sense of being controlled that controlled me. And that all-controlling sense of being controlled bolstered my false understanding and imprisoned me in sin.

Wow. That’s heavy. Even heavier than Jung.

So, now that I had learned from experience that God is light, goodness, love, now that sweet waves of loving-kindness, not torment, were billowing over my soul, I was ready to receive the doctrinal foundation for the knowledge of His goodness. And—oh look, here comes Thomas Aquinas.

First, a bit of background—from the always-indispensable eleven-volume Story of Civilization:

When he was canonized [after his death] witnesses testified that he ‘was soft-spoken, easy in conversation, cheerful and bland of countenance… generous in conduct, most patient, most prudent; radiant with charity and gentle piety; wondrous compassionate to the poor.’ He was so completely filled with piety and study that these filled every thought and moment of his waking day. He attended all the hours of prayer, said one Mass or heard two each morning, read and wrote, preached and taught, and prayed. Before a sermon or a lecture, before sitting down to study or compose, he prayed; and his fellow monks thought that ‘he owed his knowledge less to the effort of the mind than to the virtue of his prayer.’ On the margin of his manuscripts we find, every now and then, pious invocations like Ave Maria! He became so absorbed in the religious and intellectual life that he hardly noticed what happened about him. In the refectory, his plate could be replaced and removed without his being aware of it; but apparently his appetite was excellent. Invited to join other clergymen at dinner with Louis IX, he lost himself in meditation during the meal; suddenly he struck the table with his fist and exclaimed: ‘That is the decisive argument against the Manicheans!’ His prior reproved him: ‘You are sitting at the table of the King of France’; but Louis, with royal courtesy, bade an attendant bring writing materials to the victorious monk. Nevertheless the absorbed saint could write with good sense on many matters of practical life. People remarked how he could adjust his sermons either to the studious minds of his fellow monks, or to the simple intellects of common folk. He had no airs, made no demands upon life, sought no honors, refused promotion to ecclesiastical office. His writings span the universe, but contain not one immodest word. He faces in them every argument against his faith, and answers with courtesy and calm.

May that truly be said of us, and all of us.

And so finally, yesterday, after perusing the first few chapters of a “biography” by Chesterton, and an introduction to his metaphysics, I sat down and began reading his commentary on the book of Job.

It is not without some measure of justice that this commentary is described as the finest commentary on Job ever written. Here I shall deal solely with the second lesson (Job 1:6-12), in which he establishes the theme and purpose of the whole work. In the process, Aquinas demonstrates not only that the intentions of God with respect to Job were good, but what exactly those intentions were. How does he do it? Let us take a look.

First: God is depicted seated on His throne in heaven, with the angels gathered round him (Job 1:6). This is to establish, from the beginning, the supremacy of God in all natural, supernatural, and worldly affairs: “Lest anyone think that the adversities of just men happen apart from divine providence… he first explains how God has care of human affairs and governs them.” Moreover, both the good and evil things which men do are subject to divine judgment.

But then Aquinas says something peculiarly fascinating. He notes that the text says, “On a certain day the sons of God presented themselves before the Lord,” and “Satan came also among them.” In the first clause, the sense is active, in the second, passive. It is as though the author wishes to emphasize that while the good angels, and, by extension, all who love Him, are willingly subject to His gaze, and willingly perform His will (see Ps. 110), the servants of wickedness perform His will, and are subject to His gaze, in a manner opposed to their own inclinations. “The wicked angels… do not intend that the things which they do are referred to God, but the fact that whatever they do is subject to divine judgment happens against their will.” Yet, at the same time, the passage says that Satan was “among them” to signify “that evil things are not done from a principal intention of God’s, but comes upon good men almost by accident.”

And then he goes a step further. The reason why evil becomes what it is, is because it seeks its ends apart from God. The good angels in all things follow the divine will. The rebellious angels, in rebelling, separate themselves from goodness, and are, by the very nature of their divergence, naturally corrupted.

In retrospect, I suppose this is essentially what Milton was aiming to show in Paradise Lost: not even the devils started out as devils. They were spurred to their rebellion by a lust for things which, in themselves, were good. Yet in warring against the very Fount of Goodness, they became perverse, malign, reptilian; till even the love of the things for which they had initially rebelled was lost to them forever. How dangerous it is for a Christian to quarrel with his God! Not because there is any danger of His blasting us to nothing—He has no desire to destroy us—but because we rage against the light itself, and no good thing can ever grow from darkness. If our course is not corrected by His mercy, we consign ourselves to hell.

The Lord then interrogates Satan: “Where have you come from?” This He apparently does to show that Satan to his inmost depths is known and seen by God, for in asking, He conveys to the Devil that He examines all the thoughts and intents of his heart. (I suppose if we accept that Satan found himself before the throne, instead of going there with willingness, this makes more sense.) It is one of many places in the Scriptures where God seems to be saying one thing, but in fact is expressing the opposite (Think of how He asked Adam, “Who told you you were naked?” thus conveying that He knew through inquiry). Satan, in the English translation of the Vulgate, responds, “From prowling through the earth.” Aquinas’ elucidation of this passage is beautifully rendered. Not only are we reminded of the line in the first epistle of Peter (“Your adversary, the Devil, prowls about like a roaring lion”), but also the various passages in the Psalms which show the wicked “prowling” (Ps. 12:8, 59:6, 14). “In prowling over the earth,” our pious friend explains, “Satan shows his craftiness in seeking out those he can deceive.” What does he mean by craftiness? In order to know that, we need to consider the path of the just, which does not deviate from its intended end. The righteous are established in their course; they know their goal, and they run towards it with abandon. The crafty, however, are not aligned with them in will nor end. They pretend one thing, yet they intend another. “Because therefore the action of the just does not diverge from its principle which is the will and from its intended end, straightness (rightness) is fittingly ascribed to the just.” Ah, how smart a lash that speech doth sting my conscience!

God responds, “Have you considered My servant Job, that there is none like him on earth?” Satan has just finished explaining that he prowls about the earth. Like a proud father his child, God refers him to Job. “There is none like him on earth.” “The Lord seems to separate Job from the earth,” says Aquinas. “… However, this passage can also be understood in another way, for in each saint, there is some preeminent virtue for some special use… No one of those living on earth was like Job in that he excelled in some special use of virtue.” George MacDonald memorably wrote that we are each of us a rare and radiant flower in the garden of God, growing up to the praise of some particular glory which is ours alone.

And then, at last, Aquinas makes the crucial statement: “Consider that God not only orders the lives of the just for their own good, but he represents it for others to see.”

However, this representation has a twofold effect. In the saints, it inspires charity and burning ardor. In the wicked, in the carnal, whether saved or damned, it provokes a near-continuous eruption of envy, malice, judgment, and false accusation (2 Cor. 2:15). “Thus God wants the life of the saints to be considered not only by the elect for the progress of their salvation, but also by the iniquitous for the increase of their damnation, for from the life of the saints the perversity of the impious is shown to be blameworthy, as Wisdom says, ‘The just man who has died condemns the impious who are alive’ (Wisdom 4:16).”

And that is precisely why the Devil responds as he does: “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Those who can find no taint of blame in the lives of the holy are driven to accuse their intentions, which they cannot see, because they are unable to imagine that anyone could live a life of such devotion.

Satan challenges God: “Put forth Your hand and touch all that he has, and see if he will not curse you to your face.” Aquinas writes, “Note that even the hearts of truly just men are sometimes badly shaken by great adversity, but the deceitfully just are disturbed by a slight adversity like men having no root in their virtue.” (I should note that Aquinas makes useful side remarks like this throughout the second section. I have reluctantly refrained from typing all of them, but they are well worth reading. For example, he gives an extended discourse, in the first few pages, on the nature and purpose of angels. Says The Story of Civilization: “Thomas writes ninety-three pages [in the Summa Theologica] on the hierarchy, movements, love, knowledge, will, speech, and habits of the angels—the most farfetched part of his far-flung Summa, and the most irrefutable.”)

Aquinas’ conclusion renders God, not despotic, not tyrannical, not easily seduced by Satan, but GLORIOUS in His purposes and attributes:

From what has been said already it is clear that the cause of the adversity of blessed Job was that his virtue should be clear to all. So Scripture says of Tobias, ‘Thus the Lord permitted him to be tempted so that an example might be given to posterity of his patience, like blessed Job’ (Tob. 2:12). Be careful not to believe that the Lord had been persuaded by the words of Satan to permit Job to be afflicted, but he ordered this from his eternal disposition to make clear Job’s virtue against the false accusations of the impious. Therefore, false accusations are placed first and the divine permission follows.

God wanted to vindicate Job. This He wanted to do, both for the honor of His saint, and for the glory of His name. He knew Job’s name would be preserved forever, and forever prove a consolation to the grieving and afflicted. He afflicted Job, in short, because of His faith and delight in the love of His son. In this, as Chesterton, has noted, he was not unlike the Son of God Himself.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Mind - and Heart - of Thomas More

I’m currently reading Peter Ackroyd’s Life of Thomas More. I began with Chapter 10, “The Wine of Angels.” In it, Ackroyd spotlights and analyzes an ostensible contradiction in the character of the great saint which, given my own recent discovery of the haunting truths which inconsistencies obscure, I found illuminating.

More was not only a great saint, but a great lawyer—Ackroyd describes him as without question the greatest lawyer the English-speaking world has yet produced. Even to the end, he remained a man of the world; yet he died a martyr for the Catholic faith. He dined with kings, cardinals, and archbishops, lived amid splendor, and understood the civic uses of religious pageantry. Yet his favorite book, the book which most inflamed his life and thought, the book which proved his greatest comfort in the solitary confines of his cell, was Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ—a mediaeval devotional treatise on the vanity of trusting in the transient glories of this world.

Thus Ackroyd raises the inevitable question, “If The Imitation of Christ was More’s golden book, as is often surmised, where was the spiritual profit to be found?”

And then he goes on to explain:

It lies at the centre of a Kempis’s teaching, when he urges the reader to ‘look on all things as passing away, and on thyself as doomed to pass away with them.’ It is the theme taken up in many of More’s earliest epigrams and might be supposed to be his greatest subject; yet such a deep and permanent awareness of transience seems difficult to reconcile with More’s successful life in the world. But a recognition of the hollowness of the world no more precludes ambition than it does conviviality. It simply places it within a larger context. All becomes part of the same play which, in the words of More, you must act out to the best of your ability. The whole elaborate mediaeval edifice of spectacle and display is built upon the awareness of death. Yet within the overwhelming context of divine truth and eternity, there is also a delight to be found in the transient game and an energy to be derived from the passing spectacle. It is in this crucial area of the late mediaeval imagination, so open to misunderstanding and to misinterpretation, that we must place Thomas More. There is a Japanese image of the ‘floating world’, wonderfully constructed and designed in full knowledge of its eventual demise: there ceases to be any private motive in collaborating upon this infirm beautiful project, but rather an awareness of common inheritance and destiny. We may see More’s education and career as part of the same process; that is how he could combine ambition and penitence, success and spirituality, in equal measure. He could move easily through a society permeated with religious values and images; the faith of his nation was a social and political, as well as a spiritual, reality. His sense of transience, and recognition of eternity, could only be enhanced in a city which from the southern bank of the Thames looked like an island of church steeples. More kept in fine balance these complementary vistas—of the hollowness of the world and of the delight in game. From this awareness of duality (and perhaps the duality within his own nature) springs his wit, his irony and the persistent doubleness of his vision.

Chesterton would argue that More’s ability to sustain this paradox throughout his life is a testament to the power of orthodoxy: for in embracing Christianity as taught by Christ and eventually codified in the doctrines of the Church, he embraced a vision of the world which makes it possible for a man to live in the world, and yet be dead to it. It is one of those apparent contradictions in the Christian faith which, on further examination, proves to be the path of truth—“the combination between two almost insane positions which yet somehow amount[s] to sanity”—not a middle way between two extremes, as Aristotle would have it, but both extremes at once—in More’s case, both the scholar and the saint. “We want not an amalgam or compromise,” says Chesterton, “but both things at the top of their energy: love and wrath both burning.”

And in More’s case, I suspect it was his actual devotion to Christ (most immediately suggested by his devotion to The Imitation of Christ) which best explains this seeming contradiction in the composition of his character. A man who has been captured by the love of Christ will feel no need to seek his worth in his (formidable) achievements, still less in the favor of clerics and monarchs. Thus Ackroyd is correct in his assessment, though he only goes so far. It is true, there burned in More’s soul an abiding conviction of the vanity of all things not eternal, but if it ended there, it would have been mere pessimism—and we know that More cherished “merriement” above almost all other qualities. No, it was his love of the eternal which enabled him to see with clarity the fading nature of the fashion of this world [edit: Aquinas affirms this when in Chapter 11 of his commentary on the book of Job WHICH I JUST STARTED READING AND IT’S AWESOME he writes, “The vanity of man comes from the fact that his heart is not fixed in the truth which alone can be the foundation of his security”]. He had found his identity, not in his rhetorical skills, nor his wealth, nor his fame, nor his writing, but in Christ Himself, the Man he would march to the scaffold celebrating and defending. Realism without love is itself vanity. More had both, and this is the enduring secret of his greatness.

Popes, Persecution, and Child Prodigies

Two news items from today reflect growing tension in Europe and the Middle East between Christians and Muslims. In the first, as Daniel Henninger notes in the Wall Street Journal, “This being the season of hope, Islamic extremists of course have been engaged in their annual tradition of blowing up Christian churches.”

The occasion for this remark was a Muslim attack on two houses of worship in Nigeria last week, accompanied by the Christmas Eve bombing of a chapel on the Philippines’ Jolo Island, which injured eleven.

Unmentioned in the article, however, was the car bombing in Alexandria, Egypt, which killed twenty-one as they were leaving mass on Christmas Eve. From the Associated Press report:

Nearly 1,000 Christians were attending the midnight Mass at the Saints Church in the Mediterranean port of Alexandria, said Father Mena Adel, a priest at the church. The service had just ended, and some worshippers were leaving the building when the bomb went off about a half hour after midnight, he said.

“The last thing I heard was a powerful explosion and then my ears went deaf,” Marco Boutros, a 17-year-old survivor, said from his hospital bed. “All I could see were body parts scattered all over — legs and bits of flesh.”

Blood splattered the facade of the church, a painting of Jesus inside, and a mosque across the street. The blast mangled at least six cars on the street, setting some ablaze. As bodies were taken away after daybreak, some in the congregation waved white sheets with the sign of the cross emblazoned on them with what appeared to be the victim’s blood.

Health Ministry spokesman Abdel-Rahman Shahine said the death toll stood at 21, with 97 wounded, almost all Christians. Among the wounded were the three policemen and an officer guarding the church.

Blood on an image of Jesus… appropriate, I guess (Isaiah 63:1-8). Mike Bickle is fond of saying that the Jesus of Christmas is the Jesus of Armageddon. Attacks like this are near-constant reminders of why it is, exactly, that we need the Jesus of Armageddon.

The pope has been refreshingly unsparing in his criticism of the full-scale global persecution of Christians, and the evident indifference of the ruling world powers. This from the Wall Street Journal article:

One of the central public events during these days at year’s end is the Pope's midnight Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In his homily the pope invariably pleads for peace, but on Friday evening a viewer could not have missed the meaning when Benedict XVI twice mentioned “garments rolled in blood,” from Isaiah 9:5.

The image, as befits Isaiah, is poetic and disturbing. Benedict surely intended it so: “It is true,” he said, “that the ‘rod of his oppressor’ is not yet broken, the boots of warriors continue to tramp and the ‘garment rolled in blood’ still remains.” He was of course referring to the sustained violence against Christian minorities by Islamic fundamentalists.

Hours before this, from a window above St. Peter's Square, Benedict also took a pass on the holiday pabulum handed out by other world leaders this time of year by explicitly criticizing China. He said the “faithful of the church in mainland China [should not] lose heart through the limitations imposed on their freedom of religion and conscience.”

And yet, even in the midst of all this, BBC Radio 4 suggests a “moral equivalence” between the murderous ideology of fanatical Islam, and the lone ravings of the (not-quite) Koran-burning Florida pastor, Terry Jones. And Liam Neeson, the voice of Aslan from the Narnia movies, publicly states that Aslan isn’t intended to represent Jesus, but people of “all faiths.” Aslan! All faiths! One wonders if Mr. Neeson even read the lines he spoke. I suppose it should have been obvious that when the noble Lion said, “I have another name in your world,” he was speaking in the marvelous, metaphorical, mystical sense where one means all.

Finally, NPR and Lapham’s Quarterly relate the strange, sad story of a child prodigy—a girl who even at the age of nine had all the makings of a literary genius—and the sudden turns of fate that drove her into poverty, and possibly to death, by twenty-six:

…[B]y September 1929, Barbara found herself stranded and alone with family friends in Los Angeles. It was unbearable: she fled to San Francisco, hid in a hotel, and wrote poetry. But she’d been reported as a runaway, and when police burst into her room, they narrowly kept her from escaping through the window.

“I loathe Los Angeles,” she explained to reporters.

The story made national news; a Times headline reminded readers, “Case of Barbara Follett Recalls Feats of Chopin, Mozart, and Others.” Helen and Barbara were reunited in New York, but their finances were so dire that upon turning sixteen in March 1930, Barbara had to find work. Her timing was awful, coming months after the Wall Street crash. After a course in shorthand and business typing—a “decidedly more tawdry use of its magic,” she mused—Barbara was getting up early every morning to ride the subway to a secretarial job.

“My dreams are going through their death flurries,” she wrote that June. “I thought they were all safely buried, but sometimes they stir in their grave, making my heartstrings twinge. I mean no particular dream, you understand, but the whole radiant flock of them together—with their rainbow wings, iridescent, bright, soaring, glorious, sublime. They are dying before the steel javelins and arrows of a world of Time and Money.”

“O Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!”