Saturday, February 27, 2010

Literary Neanderthals (and you thought they were stupid!)

One of the online journals I read fairly regularly is MercatorNet, a site that features articles on a variety of subjects, whose common link is attention to the inherent dignity of the human person. The subjects of the articles are taken from news headlines, and one of the aims of MercatorNet's editorial policy is to take on polemically the assumptions embedded in many offerings put out by "objective" journalistic media. Or, as the MercatorNet editorial staff put it,
We're proud to have enemies and we attack them repeatedly by confronting them with evidence. Here they are: moral relativism, scientism, crass commercialism, utilitarianism, materialism -- in short, any ism which reduces persons to ciphers and treats them as soulless machines. We delight in dissecting media cliches.
They actively invite comments on their articles and encourage discussion among readers who may or may not agree with the views expressed. Since comments are moderated, the resulting discussion is always civil in tone, although not necessarily univocal. (By the way, the same publisher also has an online journal that focuses on bioethical issues: BioEdge: bioethics news from around the world.

Reconstruction of
Neanderthal child
I mention this partly to encourage others to read MercatorNet online, and partly to draw attention to a recent piece discussing a Harvard professor's proposal that we begin cloning Neanderthals. The view of the professor, genome researcher George Church, is that of most proponents of scientism: "If we can do something [e.g., clone Neanderthals], we are ethically compelled to do it if it will yield new knowledge." This is just another permutation of the old "Might makes right" argument, which most thinking people would consider suspect, if not plain wrong. For this kind of scientist, however, the only moral imperative is to seek knowledge (scientia). But while knowledge itself may be morally neutral, the means by which we seek it, and the uses to which we put it, are not. (I seem to recall a story about a couple of early humans -- even before the Neanderthals! -- who sought some knowledge for self-serving motives, which turned out not to be good for themselves or for anyone else ever since.)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Conversion stories in the Christian Tradition

St Benedict Restores Life to a Young Monk, by Giovanni del Biondo St Benedict Restores Life to a Young Monk, by Giovanni del Biondo
St Benedict restores life
to a young monk
Various things the last couple of weeks have kept me from much reading or writing. (Okay, I read a few Janet Evanovich novels about a New Jersey woman who becomes a bounty hunter after she loses her job as lingerie buyer at a local department store -- I'm all for career flexibility, but have decided not to follow her example.) This being Lent, I scrounged around for some appropriate reading (not that City of God would not be appropriate!), and found a copy of the second book of St Gregory the Great's Dialogues, which is devoted entirely to the life of Saint Benedict, the father of Western monasticism, and a number of miracles worked through him. This is an edition from Macmillan's Library of Liberal Arts series, translation and introduction by Myra L. Uhlfelder, which I picked up a few months ago from Half Price Books for 98 cents.

Hagiography -- i.e., stories of saints working miracles and fighting off temptations and demons -- was wildly popular reading during the Middle Ages, and of course the Christian literary tradition has always given great importance to the inspiring stories of those who have gone before us and to firsthand accounts of personal experience with the trials and triumphs of Christian life. One of the key differences between the Old & New Testaments is that most of the books of the Old Testament were written long after the events they describe transpired, but the Christian Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles are based on eye witness accounts that had been shared orally for a generation or so before being committed to writing. In fact, much of their authority comes from the fact that they were written from eye witness testimony. St Paul's personal encounter with Christ, risen and ascended, on the road to Damascus lends authority to his many epistles, as well as his preaching. So, one might say that from the very beginning, personal accounts of God's action and intervention in men's lives is a unique and essential feature of the Christian tradition.

St Augustine of Hippo understood this when he wrote his Confessions, which is essentially a meditation on how God's providence led him to become to be a Christian. In Book X, after he has completed the account of his life up to the time of his conversion and baptism, Augustine (who has constantly addressed his narrative to God) brings up the question of why he should allow readers to eavesdrop on his confession to God:
What therefore have I to do with men that they should hear my confessions, as if it were they who would cure all that is evil in me? Men are a race curious to know of other men's lives, but slothful to correct their own. Why should they wish to hear from me what I am, when they do not wish to hear from You what they are themselves? (X. iii.3)

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Planet Narnia: Tutelary Deities

Last week when I was writing my previous post about Michael Ward's Planet Narnia, I visited Ward's website and left a comment on his blog, telling him how much I like his book and inviting him to take a look at what I had said about it on my own blog. A day or two ago I received this reply from him:
Dear Lisa,

Thanks for your post on the Planet Narnia blog.  I'm delighted to know you enjoyed reading the book; it was certainly the greatest pleasure to write.

Thanks also for your post on your own blogsite, which I read and admired.  One thing I would slightly question though is the use of the word 'red herring' with respect to Aslan as Christ.  Sure, it's a red herring insofar as it has led critics to concentrate far too exclusively on Biblical-allegorical readings of the Chronicles.  But Aslan certainly IS a Christ-figure, beautifully so, and the planetary scheme Lewis adopted means that the Christology he is trying to communicate is far more sophisticated than 'mere' Biblical allegory of a simple one-to-one kind.

But that's a small point.  Generally, I thought what you wrote was excellent, and I found it personally very encouraging.  Thank you!

With kind regards,

Michael
I can see that my use of the term "red herring" was confusing, so I've revised the original post to make my meaning a little clearer. I didn't mean to suggest that readers are mistaken to discern an identification between Aslan and Christ, or that Lewis was misleading readers to make an erroneous connection (that's the usual meaning of "red herring"). It seems quite clear to me -- as I think it will to almost any reader -- that, in the first Narnia story, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (LWW), Lewis deliberately made the parallels between Aslan's actions and the atoning sacrifice of Christ virtually unmistakable. What I had meant to convey is that this connection was so obvious that it may have distracted critics from discerning or pursuing less obvious (non-Scriptural) allusions.


medieval engraving of Roman god Jupiter
For those who have not yet had an opportunity to read Planet Narnia, I'll explain a little bit about Ward's thesis. What Ward calls his "Eureka moment" occurred one night when he was struck by a phrase from Lewis's poem, "The Planets," which describes the allegorical personae of the planets as they were used poetically throughout the Middle Ages. The phrase that struck him referred to the influence of Jupiter (a.k.a. Jove, the Latin equivalent of Greek Zeus): "winter passed / And guilt forgiven." Immediately this made him think of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, in which Narnia is caught in an unending winter, until Aslan arrives on the scene and allows himself to be sacrificed by the White Witch, in substitution for Edmund Pevensey, who has betrayed his siblings to the Witch. Ward wondered:
Could there be a link somehow between poem and Chronicle? That thought was the stray spark connecting Jupiter to The Lion in my mind, and one by one the other planet-to-book relationships began to be lit up in its train. (Planet Narnia, 251)
That spark lit a blaze which resulted in Planet Narnia, a wonderfully illuminating study of how the medieval allegorical use of the pagan gods influenced the composition Lewis's Narnia stories (and his other novels, as well).

Why would Lewis use Roman gods as the inspiration for his wonderful Narnia tales? Well, the short answer is, "Because he was a medievalist and an ardent amateur astronomer." Here's a longer answer: Much of the poetry of the Christian Middle Ages -- and well through the period of the Renaissance -- was modeled on, and influenced by, the norms of pre-Christian Latin poetry, which was considered exemplary (think of how deeply influenced the thoroughly-Christian Dante was by the pagan Latin poet, Vergil). The Greeks and Romans, of course, believed that there were many immortal gods, who had their own distinctive personalities and attributes and who intervened in the human realm and governed the cosmos. Today we still call planets by the names of the gods who governed them: Mars, Venus, Jupiter, etc. One of the borrowings (or, better said, inheritances) from the pagan Graeco-Roman world that had the most pervasive influence on the medieval imagination, poetically and otherwise, was their concept of a cosmos in which everything beyond the orbit of the Moon (Diana's planet) was eternal and immortal, the realm of the gods.

medieval conception of the cosmos
Medieval man, of course, was not a pagan and did not believe in the pagan gods, but he was profoundly influenced by the conceptual model of the universe that he inherited from the ancient pagans. (You can read about this in C. S. Lewis's The Discarded Image.) For medieval man, too, the earth was the realm of all that is mortal, material, passing, and fallen, while everything in the heavens was spiritual and immortal, charged with the Divine Presence. Thus it was natural for medieval man to find the ancient pagan gods who had given their names to the heavenly bodies to be transformed into personifications, or allegories, of the one true God who reigns over all Creation. Thus, when a medieval poet wrote about the god Jove (Jupiter), he was really writing about those aspects of God (Christ) that Jove embodies: his kingship and majesty, warmth and festivity, etc. Each of the gods represented by the planets of the night sky, in this Christianized cosmos, reflected different aspects of God's nature, so that poems about the pagan deities were always really poems about Christ.

The insight that Michael Ward hit upon was that each of the Narnia books has its own tutelary deity; i.e., each is attuned to the aspects of a particular planetary god, giving that story its own peculiar flavor or atmosphere (what Ward calls its "donegality"). Not only does the planet in question "flavor" the story to reflect its corresponding planet/god, but the way Lewis portrays Aslan in each story also reflects the those particular aspects of Christ that the god in question embodies allegorically. Medieval writers delighted in complex and many-layered allegory, so it should be no surprise that Jack Lewis, medieval scholar and Christian apologist, should choose such a complicated and obscure way to compose his Narnia tales, such that you first have to find the hidden layer of planetary influence and then penetrate beneath it to the Christological meaning, in order to fully appreciate their significance.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Comment on Gilson' s Foreward to City of God

Aside from agreeing with Gilson’s general thesis -- that we wouldn't have the modern notion that we can create a universal and just society, had it not been for Augustine's City of God --  I will simply suggest that his last point is one worth considering. Although I don’t think we are anywhere near creating a just society on earth (according to the secular or the Christian model) – in fact, we often seem to be going in quite the opposite direction! – it seems that in the present day, when the secular world presents itself more and more as being necessarily antagonistic toward the Christian faith than perhaps at any time since Augustine’s own day, it is more important than ever that separated Christian bodies unite with – or at least collaborate with – the Catholic Church, to make common cause toward building a just society consonant with (not striving against) Christian principles. (In fact we see, more and more, that other religions are willing to make common cause with Christianity against the assaults of secularism.)

Now, when Augustine used that term “Catholic,” he meant not only "that Church visibly united with the See of Peter (the pope)," but also “that Christian body which is free from heresy (or doctrinal error)” – i.e., not the Donatists, Pelagians, Arians, etc. From the Catholic perspective, these two uses of the term are identical: the Catholic Church proclaims the Christian faith in its fullness, and without error through its infallible teaching authority (Magisterium). Any Christian individual or corporate body that denies any portion of the Catholic Church's teaching of the faith is at a spiritual disadvantage, because they do not know (or acknowledge) the faith in its fullness. According to this understanding, Protestants differ from Catholics not simply as one religious denomination differs from another (“different strokes for different folks”), but they necessarily suffer from the ill effects of doctrinal error, to the extent that they differ or dissent from the Catholic faith. It is an act of charity to try to heal the breach of separation, so that "separated brethren" may be restored to the full life of the Christian (i.e., Catholic) Church.

I don't say this polemically -- that is, I'm not trying to present an argument to support the Catholic view, but simply trying to articulate it, because Gilson wrote as a Catholic when he said that "If we really want one world, we must have one Church, and the only Church that is one is the Catholic Church.” Gilson does not say so, but I think he would agree that this desire for a unified society ("one world, one Church") can best be achieved if separated Christian bodies are re-unified with the Catholic Church. The Body of Christ must be whole in order to be healthy, and it must be healthy in order to be able not only to defend itself against the encroachment of secularism, but to work toward building a just society, for the good of all (Christians, secularists, and others).

Gilson's Foreward to the City of God

What follows is my summary of the abbreviated version of Gilson's introductory essay that appears in the Image edition of the City of God that I'm reading. It runs on a bit, so I'll put my commentary in a separate post.
 
Gilson emphasizes that our modern aspiration to build a perfect, universal society had its origins in Augustine’s description of the City of God and the way this City cooperates with, and shares benefits with, the City of Man. However, the modern world neglects a fact that the ancient world would have found impossible to deny – that every society is held together (i.e., merits the name of “society”) only insofar as it is united by two things: religion and blood kinship. He goes on to say that Augustine, in writing The City of God, demonstrates that the City of God, or the Heavenly Society, also is defined by these two factors – religion, in that it consists only of those who have held God as their highest good, and kinship, in that it comprises those who recognize not only the physical brotherhood of Men (all descended from the same original parents) but, more importantly, the spiritual brotherhood of Man (adopted sons of God the Father, through His divine Son, Jesus Christ).
 
In Gilson’s account, Augustine demonstrates that Rome, long before his own day, had ceased to merit the name civitas (“society” or “City”) in the sense Augustine uses the term. That is, it is no longer bound together by a concern for the common good, or a shared understanding of what that good is. Going farther, Augustine demonstrates that the earthly city (not merely the city of Rome, which is its concrete exemplar) has been at odds with the heavenly society since the first generation of mankind, when Cain, who was motivated by pride and self-interest, killed his brother Abel, who worthily worshipped God; thus Augustine illustrates the difference between these two societies, which is the difference between their two primary loves (God or self). By defining things in this way, Gilson shows that, on Augustine’s terms, no earthly city can, with perfect justice, claim the name of “society,” because its primary motivation will always be self-interest (in early Rome, this meant honor or public recognition, later wealth, power, and pleasure) rather than Charity.

Thus, suggests Gilson, any later generation which is inspired by The City of God to create a just, unified, and peaceful society needs to recognize that such a society must be founded on a love of God and neighbor and depend on the grace of God for its peace and unity, and that the any efforts in this world will always, necessarily, fall short of the perfection that can be known only in the life of the world to come. This is why modern efforts to create worldwide social unity are doomed to fail, because, as Gilson puts it, “they have studied everything except the Christian faith in order to find a common bond.” He suggests, “If we really want one world, we must have one Church, and the only Church that is one is the Catholic Church.”

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