christianity

Beowulf and the Trinitarian nature of man

Just as so much of the literature of the ancient world stands out as an example of the ethos heavy, or, in Sayers’ terminology, “Son-ridden,” story, Beowulf is a notable example of the pathos heavy, or “Spirit-ridden,” story. On the surface of this medieval northern European epic is the story is a Danish hero defeating a series of monsters in succession. In this onslaught of conflicts, there are few pauses for contemplation or explanation such as might be found in the great epics of other civilizations, such as Greece, Rome, or India. When such do occur, they are generally terse and quickly forgotten. Below the surface and buried in the action, in fact conveyed almost solely through the action, is an attempt to Christianize the story of the pagan Danish warrior whose story is being recorded.

The author of Beowulf, undoubtedly a Christian and almost certainly a member of the clergy, is, through rather clever anachronisms retroactively baptizing his heathen ancestors. In so doing, he attempts to redeem his non-Christian ancestors through demonstrating at various points that in spite of their heathenism God was indeed present in their history. In one of the relatively few digressions from the action of the story, the narrator condemns the paganism of his ancestors as he explains that, in reaction to the attacks of Grendel, the Danes

prayed aloud, promising sometimes

on the altars of their idols unholy sacrifices

if the Slayer of souls would send relief

to the suffering people

Such was their practice,

a heathen hope; Hell possessed

their hearts and minds: the Maker was unknown to them,

the Judge of all actions, the Almighty was unheard of,

they knew not how to praise the Prince of Heaven,

the Wielder of Glory.

Ironically, however, the heroes of the story exhibit quite a different set of beliefs in their own words as the narrator frequently assigns to them anachronistic exclamations at the glory of a monotheistic and decidedly non-pagan deity. Beowulf’s companion Wiglaf, for example, exclaims, that Beowulf had been granted victory over his enemy by “God … the Master of Victories.” Similarly noteworthy is the genealogical link between Beowulf’s original enemy, Grendel, and the biblical story of Cain, a link that fits only with great difficulty into the overall narrative, as Grendel’s mother is presented as a demon, an evil and non-human entity, while any descendent of Cain must, of course, be at least partially human. Grendel’s father, notably, is unknown.

The author also calls special attention to the circumstances which incited Grendel’s murderous anger, apparently a musical rendition of the creation story of Genesis:

It was with pain that the powerful spirit

dwelling in darkness endured that time,

hearing daily the hall filled

with loud amusement; there was the music of the harp,

the clear song of the poet, perfect in his telling

of the remote first making of man’s race.

He told how, long ago, the Lord formed earth

a plain bright to look on, locked in ocean,

exulting established the sun and the moon

as lights to illumine the land-dwellers

and furnished forth the face of Earth

with limbs and leaves. Life He then granted

to each kind of creature that creeps and moves.

While the anachronism of this aspect of the story is obvious and the link between Grendel and Cain is tenuous, the narrator uses both to demonstrate to his audience that the heroes of their past were not bereft of virtue but were in some sense aligned with the God of their newfound Christian faith. If Grendel is a descendent of the biblical proto-homicide and in league with the devil of the Christian faith, he is an enemy of God, and Beowulf, by contrast, being an enemy of Grendel, is an ally of the Christian God.

The narrator presents Beowulf as a bridge figure who embodies the best of both the pagan and Christian worlds of northern Europe. At points throughout the work, he hints at an eventual Christian ethic replacing the brutal old northern European warrior code, and at Beowulf standing at the threshold between the two. In the final lines of the epic, for example, he describes Beowulf as “the gentlest of men, and the most gracious, / the kindest to his people, the keenest for fame.” He is, in other words, a complex amalgam of Christian (“gentlest”, “most gracious”, “kindest”) and pagan (“keenest for fame”) virtues.

Ultimately, however, in spite of his efforts, the narrator fails in his goal because the task is too great and his attempts are insufficient. In one scene near the end of the story, the narrator relates Wiglaf’s failed attempt to revive the dying Beowful by splashing him with water:

Wearily he sat,

a foot-soldier, at the shoulder of his lord,

trying to wake him with water; but without success.

For all his desiring it, he was unable to hold

his battle-leader’s life in this world

or affect anything of the All-Weilder’s;

for every man’s action was under the sway

of God’s judgement, just as it is now.

The symbolism here of Wiglaf’s desperate and defeated effort to “save” Beowulf and bring him “life” by baptism is an apt symbol for the epic of Beowulf as a whole. The author has attempted to retroactively save his ancestors from their heathenism by baptizing them in Christianizing anachronisms. The effort, however, is “without success.” Rather than a redeemed heathen hero, what emerges from the character of Beowulf is a confused conglomeration which is not quite pagan enough to be believable and not quite Christian enough to be palatable.

The ultimate failure of Beowulf is in its pathos-driven narrative. The framework of the story is itself a pagan framework, which prevents the death of Beowulf from being redemptive. The Christian tradition has, nearly from its inception, held that the contemplative life is superior to the life of activity. Beowulf’s life of action and adventure, and the action-driven narrative of the epic which bears his name, are a decisive step outside of this Christian intellectual milieu. Just as Wiglaf’s splashes of water onto the dying Beowulf in the dragon’s lair prove ineffective for reviving him, the author’s baptism of his pagan ancestors within the literary framework of a heathen epic is ineffective for redeeming them.

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An argument for the existence of God from mystical experience (part 3)

Religion is at the core of nearly all of the world’s civilizations. It hardly needs to be argued, for example, that Indian culture, in its food, dress, custom, and other features, is in large part a derivative of the Hindu belief system. Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism are quite obviously the formative elements underlying Chinese and Korean culture. The synthesis of Judaism and Hellenism within the context of Christianity is quite obviously at the heart of Western Civilization. The modern Middle East would be altogether different were it not for the cultural predominance of Islam in that region. In turn, the root and stem of each of these various religious systems is an experience like that described by William James. Nearly all of the world’s major religions have as their source a claim by their founder to have directly experienced something divine and transcendent, to have attained a suprarational awareness. In short, a claim of mystical experience is at the beginning and center of each of the world’s cultures. It is these experiences that will now be turned to as evidence that mystical experience is a widespread and innately human phenomenon that must be accounted for in any coherent belief system that remains true to reality.

The experience of the Buddha is the source of the central doctrines and practices of Buddhism, one of the most popular religious systems in the world and one that has had a major formative influence on nearly all of East Asia. While there are no firsthand accounts by the Buddha concerning his experience, early Buddhist documents like those contained in the Sutta Pitaka, a collection of sutras the contents of which have traditionally been attributed to the Buddha and his closest disciples, provide insight into the nature of the Buddha’s experience.

The descriptions of this experience meet all four criteria employed by William James to describe mystical experiences. The Buddha’s employment of the ambiguous term “nibbana,” meaning “extinguishing,” to describe his experience indicates the ineffable nature of the experience. Throughout the important Buddhist texts, nibbana is consistently described in terminology that is often obscure and almost always phrased in the negative, indicating what it is not rather than what it is. The Nibbana Sutta, for example, records that the Buddha claimed,

There is that dimension where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor stasis; neither passing away nor arising: without stance, without foundation, without support. This, just this, is the end of suffering.

Similarly, the second century AD Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna wrote that, “The [Buddha] has declared that earth, water, fire, and wind, long, short, fine and coarse, good, and so on are extinguished in consciousness. … Here long and short, fine and coarse, good and bad, here name and form all stop.”

The enlightenment experience of the Buddha also possessed the noetic quality of a sudden flash of insight or illumination. The Mahasuccaka Sutta features a dialogue that claims to record the words of the Buddha himself. In the course of the dialogue, the Buddha reports that as he grew closer to enlightenment multiple insights “spontaneous, never before heard” became apparent to his mind. These insights finally culminated in a vision like the cosmic vision reported by Benedict and Arjuna. The Buddha says that he saw all at once “many eons of cosmic contraction, many eons of cosmic expansion, many eons of cosmic contraction and expansion.” The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, the teachings of the Buddha which form the core of Buddhist belief and practice, were then revealed to him as flashes of insight. The Buddha concludes, “Ignorance was destroyed; knowledge arose; darkness was destroyed; light arose.”

The Buddha concludes his description of his experience with an indication of its transient quality: “But the pleasant feeling that arose in this way did not invade my mind or remain.” The language used throughout the description, in which the Buddha indicates his passive reception of the insights and experience, demonstrate also the fourth of James’s criteria, passivity.

The far different cultural context of the Ancient Near East was the home of men whose similar experiences gave birth to a quite different system of religious thought. The first two books of the Bible record the experiences of the two founding figures of Judaism, Abraham and his descendent Moses, each of whose experiences bear the same qualities delineated by James.

While Genesis records several interactions of Abraham with God, God’s appearance to Abraham in the form of three travellers is particularly exemplary in its exhibition of all four characteristics typical of mystical experience. The three visitors arrive suddenly and unexpectedly. Genesis 18:1-2 reports that “the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day.  He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth.” As in the case of the Buddha, a profound insight is granted. Unlike the Buddha, the insight does not arrive in the form of a cosmic vision or a sudden flash of doctrinal truth. Rather, the insight granted is that Abraham’s wife Sarah will conceive and bear a son, Isaac, through whom Abraham will become the father of a great nation of people dedicated to the worship of the one true God, an insight the ramifications of which continue to be exhibited today in the adherence of half of the world’s population to a religious tradition which traces the origins of its most basic beliefs to Abraham.

The Book of Exodus records the experiences of Moses, a descendant of Abraham and, in a sense, the foundational figure of Judaism, as the prophet through whom the law was given to the Jewish people. Two incidents in the life of Moses are especially exemplary of the nature of mystical experience, the incident at the Burning Bush and the giving of the commandments on Mount Sinai. Exodus 3 reports the former incident as an entirely unexpected and profoundly life-altering event. As Moses was tending the sheep of his father-in-law, says the Exodus 3:2, “He looked, and behold, [a] bush was burning, yet it was not consumed.” As Moses approached to investigate this strange phenomenon, a voice suddenly called his name from the bush, ordering him to remove his sandals out of reverence for the holiness of the ground on which he stood. With Moses prostrate on the ground before the bush, God then provided the unexpected insight that Moses was to act as a prophet to free his people from slavery in Egypt. The ineffable quality of this already stunning event is further exhibited in God’s self-description of “I am that I am” (Exodus 4:18), a profound phrase that continues to be the subject of controversy and contemplation in the several religious traditions that claim the story of Moses as part of their spiritual lineage. The Christian mystic Gregory of Nyssa, commenting on this passage in his Life of Moses, summarizes the profound insight granted to Moses:

It seems to me that what the great Moses learned in the theophany is simply this, that neither those things grasped by sense, nor those that the mind can understand, have a real existence. The only reality that truly exists is the one that is above all of them, the cause of all from which everything depends.

The later self-revelation of God to Moses on Mount Sinai also exhibits the qualities described by William James. Moses is called by God in Exodus 19:20 to ascend Mount Sinai and there to meet with him. It is on the mountain that God reveals the law for the Jewish people to Moses. That Moses must meet with God in a cloud on the mountain is indicative of the ineffability of the experience, as is the later revelation, in Exodus 33:23, of God’s back to Moses, whereas God refuses to reveal his face to him.

The experience of the apostles Peter, James, and John on Mount Tabor as recorded in Matthew 17 follows the experience of Moses on Mount Sinai as its model and again exhibits the qualities described by William James. Matthew 17:1 reports that Jesus selected these three apostles and “led them up on a high mountain by themselves.” There, “he was transfigured before them, and his face shown like the sun, and his clothes became white as light” (Matthew 17:2). The passivity of the three apostles is indicated in their being led and being shown; rather than acting as active agents in the experience it is something that is revealed to them by a power much greater than all of them.

Peter’s bewildered and bewildering reaction to the vision is indicative of the ineffability of the experience. While James and John remain altogether silent, Peter bizarrely offers to build tents for Jesus as well as Moses and Elijah, who have appeared alongside him. While commentators have noted, in the way of an explanation for Peter’s strange offer, that it is tradition to build and dwell in tents on the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, the offer, made at that moment, has a ring of the absurd and can only ultimately be explained by Peter having been so overwhelmed at the vision he was witnessing as to lose the power of coherent, rational thought and speech. Before Peter can finish his sentence, the voice of the Father spoke from a cloud that surrounded them, granting the flash of insight, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5). Finally, with the apostles unable to bear it any longer, the vision ends, as Jesus tells them to rise, “and when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only” (Matthew 17:8).

The famous appearance of Jesus to Paul on the road to Damascus also exhibits the qualities described James. As Acts 9:3 records, “as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him.” This unexpected light stupefies Paul and knocks him to the ground. He is then granted the profound insight that the very Jesus whose followers he was persecuting is his God. Stunned by this experience and the insight it gave him, Paul remained blind and refused to eat or drink for three days after the experience, says Acts 9:9. Paul, of course, later became the most prolific and well-travelled of the apostles, writing the majority of the books that now comprise the New Testament and travelling nearly the entirety of the eastern Mediterranean in search of converts to Christianity.

As a religious tradition, Christianity in particular has continued to emphasize and focus upon mystical experience as the culmination of religious life toward which all should aim. In the fourth century, the influential Christian bishop Basil of Caesarea described the kinds of experiences reported by those adherents of the then-burgeoning monastic movement in Syria and Egypt, exhibiting once again the criteria delineated by William James:

Utterly inexpressible and indescribable is Divine beauty blazing like lightning; neither word can express nor ear receive it. If we name the brightness of dawn, or the clearness of moonlight, or the brilliance of sunshine, none of it is worthy to be compared with the glory of true light, and is farther removed therefrom than the deepest night and the most terrible darkness from the clear light of midday. When this beauty, invisible to physical eyes and accessible only to soul and thought, illumined some saint, wounding him with unbearable yearning desire, then, disgusted by earthly life, he cried: “Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech, that I dwell in the tents of Kedar!” … “My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God.” … Oppressed by this life, as by a prison, how irresistible was the striving towards God of those whose soul was touched by Divine yearning. Owing to their insatiable desire to contemplate Divine beauty, they prayed that the sight of God’s beauty should last for all eternity.

Such experiences, within the Christian tradition, are not confined to the fourth century. On the contrary, there is not an era within the entire history of the Christian Church that has not had its great mystics, including the modern era. Within recent history are mystics like the 19th century Russian monk Seraphim of Sarov, about whom a number of witnesses have recorded their own accounts. Seraphim himself related that one particularly striking experience came upon him unexpectedly while, like Thomas Aquinas centuries before him, he was performing the Eucharistic liturgy. Standing at the altar, he later reported, he suddenly saw an overwhelmingly bright white light, into which appeared Jesus surrounded by a multitude of angels “as by a swarm of bees.” The vision appeared to him only briefly, as in a flash, but so struck him that he was unable to continue with the liturgy. He had to be carried away from the altar to a place where he stood for nearly two hours until he could “come to his senses.”

While the origins of the Judeo-Christian roots of Western Civilization are evident in the mystical experiences of prophets like Abraham and Moses and apostles like Peter and Paul, the mystical experiences which comprise the origins of the Greek roots of Western Civilization are often overlooked. While Plato offers no description of the mystical experiences of Socrates, he does indicate clearly in the Apology that Socrates, that founding figure of the Greek philosophical tradition, believed himself to be prompted to his philosophical inquiry by a divine entity. In the Apology, Socrates explicitly claims to have had “visions,” saying, “And this is a duty which the God has imposed upon me, as I am assured by oracles, visions, and in every sort of way in which the will of divine power was ever signified to anyone.” Elsewhere in the Apology, Socrates explains, “You have often heard me speak of an oracle or sign which comes to me … This sign I have had ever since I was a child. The sign is a voice which comes to me and always forbids me to do something which I am going to do, but never commands me to do anything.” While Socrates does not expand upon or describe these experiences, his words are indicative of mystical experiences. Like the Buddhist civilization of the East, then, Western Civilization has, at its roots, both Hellenic and Hebrew, in mystical experience.

At what might, without inaccuracy, be termed the outer boundaries of Western Civilization mystical experience took a quite similar shape and these experiences, in turn, gave birth to the unique and formidable civilizational bloc of Islam. On the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century a merchant named Muhammad reported that he had been the recipient of a number of mystical visions, the first of which took place while he meditated in a cave near the city of Mecca. According to Muhammad, an angel appeared to him in the cave and greeted him with an exclamation that permanently altered Muhammad’s own life as well as the course of all subsequent history:

Recite in the name of your Lord, Who has created all that exists. He has created humankind from a clot. Recite! And your Lord is the most generous Who has taught mankind by the pen. He taught humankind what he knew not.

Muhammad continued to receive these visions until his death, more than 20 years later. The early Islamic scholar Jami at-Tirmidhi recorded that, when asked by one of his followers what it was like when the revelations came to him, Muhammad described them by saying that

Sometimes it comes to me like the ringing of a bell and that is the hardest upon me, and sometimes the angel will appear to me like a man, and he will speak to me such that I understand what he says.

Jami also reports that Aisha, one of the wives of Muhammad, claimed to have observed him “while the Revelation was descending upon him on an extremely cold day.” When “it ceased,” says Aisha, “his forehead was flooded with sweat.”

As in the cases already examined, the visions and revelations experienced by Muhammad also meet the criteria elucidated by William James. According to the descriptions provided by Muhammad and Aisha of his state during the revelations, they seem to have come upon him suddenly and with great force, aspects of the experiences which evince the quality of passivity as described by James. Muhammad’s experiences also demonstrate the noetic quality James identified in that each experience was followed by his recital of certain poetic verses, later compiled to form the Qur’an, which had ostensibly been revealed to him by an angel. In addition, Muhammad’s revelations exhibit the criteria of transiency in their relatively limited duration. Muhammad’s experiences were not a sustained state but a frequent and unexpected break from his normal state of mind and conduct. Muhammad’s visions also bear the quality of ineffability. Those descriptions of his visions which Muhammad was able to provide bear a dreamlike quality which often characterizes descriptions of the ineffable. In his account of one famous vision in which Muhammad claimed to have journey through the heavens the early Islamic commentator Sahih Bukhari records that Muhammad described the vision beginning while he was “in a state midway between sleep and wakefulness.”  When “an angel recognized me as the man lying between two men,” he says,

A golden tray full of wisdom and belief was brought to me and my body was cut open from the throat to the lower part of the abdomen and then my abdomen was washed with Zam-zam water and my heart was filled with wisdom and belief.

This dreamlike quality features in a number of descriptions of mystical experiences from various cultural contexts. A vision described by the Native American mystic Black Elk, for example, is similarly dreamlike. He describes being taken into the heavens by a horse that was able to speak and, once in the heavens, watching a variety of horses dance around him:

And when he whinnied to the east, there too the sky was filled with glowing clouds of manes and tails of horses, in all colors singing back. Then to the south he called, and it was crowded with many colored, happy horses, nickering.

Then the bay horse spoke to me again and said: “See how your horses all come dancing!” I looked, and there were horses, horses everywhere — a whole skyful of horses dancing round me.

“Make haste!” the bay horse said; and we walked together side by side, while the blacks, the whites, the sorrels, and the buckskins followed, marching four by four.

The dreamlike mystical experience of Guru Nanak Dev Ji in India near the end of the 15th century led him to found Sikhism, which is today the fifth largest religion in the world. According to early Sikh traditions recorded in the Janamakshi, a biography of Nanak, and other writings, Nanak was accustomed to bathing in and praying beside a river nearby his home early in the morning. On one such journey, Nanak disappeared for the duration of three days during which, he later reported, he stood as if in a trance in the presence of God. Even after reappearing, Nanak did not speak for several days and behaved strangely, having been deeply affected by his strange experience. When he did speak, finally, he proclaimed that God had revealed to him that “there is no Hindu and no Muslim.” In a radical departure from the notions that were current in his cultural context, Nanak spent the remainder of his life preaching a radical vision of absolute human equality before God that encompassed those of all religions, sexes, and races. Nanak later composed a number of poems and songs that reflect the tremendous and overwhelming power of the presence he had experienced during his vision, such as this from the Guru Granth Sahib, a massive compilation of all of the Sikh scriptures:

Were I to live for millions of years and drink the air for my nourishment;

Were I to dwell in a cave where I beheld, not sun or moon, and could not even dream of sleeping,

I should still not be able to express Thy worth; how great shall I call Thy name?

O true Formless One, Thou art in Thine own place —

As I have often heard I tell my tale — If it please Thee, show Thy favour unto me.

Were I to be felled and cut in pieces, were I to be ground in a mill;

Were I to be burned in a fire, and blended with its ashes,

I should still not be able to express Thy worth; how great shall I call Thy name?

Were I to become a bird and fly to a hundred heavens;

Were I to vanish from human gaze and neither eat nor drink,

I should still not be able to express Thy worth; how great shall I call Thy name?

Nanak, had I hundreds of thousands of tons of paper and a desire to write on it all after the deepest research;

Were ink never to fail me, and could I move my pen like the wind,

I should still not be able to express Thy worth; how great shall I call Thy name?

Freedom of the will

For the Christian, the issue of the freedom of the human will presents a dilemma. If free will is affirmed, the risk is run of denying the sovereignty of God. There is some justice in the assertion of John Calvin, a theologian for whom the sovereignty of God was a central concern, that those who believe in the freedom and effectiveness of the human will can affirm not a true omnipotence for God but rather a “vain, indolent, slumbering omnipotence.” On the other hand, however, an assertion of the absolute sovereignty of God to the exclusion of free will, such as the assertion Calvin himself made, plunges the Christian into the world of fatalism, whose guiding credo Machiavelli accurately described as the belief “that it is not necessary to labor much in affairs, but to let chance govern them.” This fatalistic perspectives also casts doubt upon the justice of God’s judgments; if, as, for example, Augustine avers, there is no activity in the world no matter how seemingly insignificant “outside of the laws of His providence,” that is, whose ultimate source of volition is the will of God, eternal rewards for virtue and punishments for vice are of questionable purpose and dubious equity. In Canto XVI of the Purgatorio, however, Dante offers a solution to the dilemma through the words of Marco, one of the penitent souls in Purgatory.

There, Dante inquires of Marco concerning the source of the evils in the world, “so that I may see it and show it to men, for one places it in the heavens and another here below.” Marcos begins his response to Dante with “a deep sigh” at the question, exclaiming “brother, the world is blind, and truly you come from it!” He explains his annoyance, saying, “You who are living refer every cause upwards to the heavens alone, as if they of necessity moved all things with them.” For Marco, the question itself is demonstrative of a desire to renounce responsibility by positing inevitability.

Marco then goes on to describe the problem with this belief. If “free will” were “destroyed in you,” he says, “there would be no justice in happiness for good or grief for evil.” Without human free will, the entire moral structure of the universe and the cosmic system of reward, punishment, and repentance through which Dante was making his way and in which Marco was currently suffering for the sake of future reward would disintegrate. If the structure of the cosmos is to be sensible and just, human beings must be free moral agents. It must be, then, says Marco, that “if the present world goes astray, in you is the cause.”

Marco’s emphatic declarations concerning human free will, however, do not, for him, undermine the sovereignty of God. On the contrary, human freedom is a credit to the sovereignty of God rather than a debit from it. “You lie subject, in your freedom,” Marco says, “to a greater power and to a better nature, and that creates the mind in you which the heavens have not in their charge.” It is, then, a testimony to the power of God that he created man in a manner that allows him to surpass the dictates of fate derived from the stars.

While Marco admits “the heavens initiate your movements,” that is, that there are impulses which arise in man naturally and over whose arising man does not possess control, he says that “a light is given you to know good and evil,” meaning that man has the ability to choose to follow these impulses or, instead, to resist them. Man, then, is uniquely endowed with the ability to choose between good and evil, a freedom which, far from denying the sovereignty of God, rather derives from and testifies to it. Indeed, the power of freedom with which man is endowed is so great that if “free will … endure fatigue in its first battles with the heavens, afterwards, if it is well nurtured, it conquers completely.”

In this short explanation of man’s freedom in the face of fate, Dante, through Marco, has adequately reconciled fate and free will while avoiding the respective pitfalls opened up by too great an emphasis on either. He has, on the one hand, affirmed the freedom of the human will, a necessary component of any worldview with a sense of cosmic justice, of which Christianity is undoubtedly the preeminent example. Simultaneously, he has also affirmed the existence of powerful forces external to man which draw him toward a foreordained destiny, while not allowing that these forces cancel out the free choices of persons. Perhaps most importantly, Dante has reconciled human freedom to the sovereignty of God in describing free will as an essential component of the will and activity of God rather than an external component somehow foreign to or incompatible with God’s omnipotence.

Book Review: Crux Ansata by H.G. Wells

It is an interesting, though not entirely ironic, feature of atheism that more than not its best arguments against Christianity are those which are made upon the principles it derives, through its own cultural heritage, from Christianity. This is the case, to use one very great example, with the very use of reason as a weapon against faith. The belief that reason is capable of discovering truth is an old Christian superstition that depends, with total unsubstantiated faith, upon a belief in the reasonableness of the world, the trustworthiness of the human senses and rational faculties, and, as if those were not enough, upon the attainable of truth itself. That’s a great leap to take for anyone, especially for someone who believes that all human thought is merely the movement of chemicals in the brain of a bipedal ape which possesses no more cosmic significance than the wind blowing through the trees.

The principled objector whose principles fit better into the philosophy he objects to than into his own position is just what we encounter with this book. When he’s not busy with inane and insane conspiracy theories, Wells attacks Christianity in the form of the Roman Catholic Church for the moral shortcomings of so many Christians throughout history. The real punchline, seemingly unnoticed by Wells, is that the morals he accuses these Christians of violating are Christian morals.

This leaves us with something of a dilemma. Is it that Mr. Wells really believes these morals to be good, right, and true and therefore condemns those who violate them? But why does he believe these morals to be good, right, and true? Why just precisely these Christian morals? You have to have the cake to have the frosting my friend. When a set of morals derives from a specific theology, you can’t discard the theology and expect the morals to stand. Is it that Mr. Wells does not believe in these morals himself but is condemning these Christians for hypocritically violating their own morals? If this is the case, I have to wonder why Mr. Wells cares at all. Mind your own business, Mr. Wells, is what I say to that.

The irony that underlines all irony is that this book was written in the 1940s — and Mr. Wells attacks the Catholic Church first and foremost because he sees the Church as the primary opponent of the modern socialist project at the head of which project Mr. Wells himself identifies Russia and China. Perhaps Mr. Wells did not realize that even at that very moment there were other atheists out there in his beloved China and Russia — atheists who took quite seriously their realization that Christianity was wrong and therefore its morals must be wrong — slaughtering innocent millions because they didn’t fit the paradigm of his brave new world. Poor Mr. Wells.

After the gulags, the famines, and the cultural revolutions, one can hardly see this book as anything but a rather off-color jest by a sorry court jester. It might have been better if Mr. Wells had stuck with writing second-rate science fiction rather than delving into third-rate politics and fourth-rate philosophy.

Book Review: The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton

Chesterton has taken up a tremendous task with this book and spectacularly accomplished his goals. Here, he sets out to explore and explain the nature and history of man in relation to the central event in the history of the species: the Incarnation of God as man in the Person of Jesus Christ. To accomplish this goal, Chesterton begins with the beginning of man in prehistory and proceeds through to the rise of Christianity. His goal along the way is to demonstrate the singular uniqueness of man among the animals coupled with his simultaneously insufficiency in the accomplishment of his own salvation.

The points that he demonstrates along the way include the great difference even the most primitive of man shows when compared with any of even the highest members of the animal world; the preparation for the Gospel that took place in the religious thought of the Jews, the philosophy of the Greeks, and the military and political domination of the Romans over the Mediterranean world; and the essential difference between Christ and all other teachers and religious figures the world has ever seen. And all of this Chesterton argues with his characteristic wit and wisdom, stringing together his paragraphs and chapters out of aphorisms rather than sentences in the dry, academic sense that word has taken on.

This book is a book that will have one of two effects upon the sensitive reader: it will either lead him to a conversion (or to a deepening of faith, should he already be so convinced) or it will lead him to irrevocably harden his heart against ever converting to Christianity. Either way, it is a book that will have a permanent effect on those who read it well. And that is indeed the mark of a great book.

Book Review: Christ & Culture by H. Richard Niebuhr

Niebuhr attempts to understand and evaluate the various ways in which Christians throughout history and today have understood the relationship between Christ and culture. These he divides into five types:

1. “Christ Against Culture” — Those who posit that Christ and culture are diametrically opposed and cannot be reconciled.

2. “Christ of Culture” — Those who attempt to domesticate Christ within the confines of whatever culture they happen to find themselves in already.

3. “Christ Above Culture” — Those who believe Christ to be reconcilable to culture, in some sense, yet apart from and transcendent of it.

4. “Christ and Culture in Paradox” — Those who posit that Christ and culture are opposed, yet man must necessarily live within both realms, whether simultaneously or intermittently.

5. “Christ the Transformer of Culture” — The conversionist model, as he calls it, posits that culture can be transformed through Christ.

Niebuhr does an excellent job a number of fronts. Perhaps most importantly, in a work like this, he allows each of these positions to speak for itself. He refuses to caricature and he does not offer criticism of a given position until he has allowed that position to explain itself fully. When he does criticize, his criticisms are consistently fair and incisive.

Niebuhr’s approach allows him to admit each of these positions into the mainstream of the heritage of Christianity and so into the collective Christian consciousness. The end result is one that explains and critiques without being weighed down by judgment and agenda. I recommend this work to anyone interested in the relationship between the Christian faith and the various culture contexts in which it has found itself as well as the new cultural contexts in which it finds itself today, both as it spreads to lands where it has not previously reached and as the traditionally Christian societies of the West experience numerous and rapid shifts in culture and mores.

Book Review: The Sickness unto Death by Søren Kierkegaard

The Sickness unto Death, like all of Kierkegaard’s works, is as relevant today as it was when it was first published in 1849. In fact, it may very well be even more relevant as the downward spiral of Christendom has continued in the century and a half since the death of Kierkegaard. In this work, Kierkegaard identifies the illness of man, “the sickness unto death,” as the state of despair and offers the bitter but effective medicine of the truth of the Christian faith.

Despair, says Kierkegaard, is the state in which the vast majority of men live. Despair is to desire to establish oneself as an unique individual through one’s own efforts and, equally, it is the obverse: to attempt to the best of one’s abilities to blend in and subsume oneself within the mass of one’s society.

The only means by which despair can be overcome is to realize oneself in the presence of God. It is only through seeing oneself as God sees one and conforming oneself to God’s desires for one that a person becomes, in the fullest sense of the word, a self. What Kierkegaard offers here is, really, a brief but intensive summary of the Gospel.

In addition to the perennial applicability of Kierkegaard’s insights on the nature of despair, faith, and selfhood, his comments on the state of the Christian Church are insightful indictments which every Christian should read. I recommend this book for anyone who is interested in the most important question a person can ask: “how then should we live?” (Ezekiel 33:10).