Review: Christ and Prometheus by William F. Lynch

Lynch here, as elsewhere, presents a vision of the world and of man that is thoroughly incarnational. For Lynch, the event of the Incarnation, in which God became man in the person of Jesus Christ, as the event that indicates and determines the entire structure of the cosmos and of the microcosmos (the human being).

In this book, Lynch focuses on the tension between the sacred and the secular in the modern world, proposing a view of these as essentially Christological categories that must be brought into unity. Just as the ancients had to struggle to reconcile the primitive in man with civilization, the new struggle is to reconcile the religious and the secular impulses and their respective projects.

Lynch’s answer to this tension is to bring the two into a harmony in which neither swallows up the other. Rather, there must be a unity of human experience in which both impulses take part. Man must find his freedom in a world of objects and his whole being in a world of more and more minute specialization. Man, the whole man, must achieve unity and purity of experience.

The head, the hands, and the human

We know that education must be revolutionized and we sense that this modern campus, separated from the surrounding reality and monopolizing to itself, against that reality, the whole idea of schooling, may be beginning to be a huge anachronism. There are thousands of situations in the world that can become apprenticing and schooling situations. It will only be a drop in the bucket of this problem if we assign two weeks before Election Day to give students the time to influence national elections. Again, we still live in a divided world where labor works with its hands and the intellectual lives a life of the mind, in a world not daring to face the consequences of the bitter cultural divisions that result from this old hypothesis. The laborer is cut off from his own mind, and the intellectual, worse still, is alienated not from the middle class but from his own hands. A new hypothesis begins to emerge which says that we can work with our hands and read Shakespeare too. Meantime we suffer intensely from this old aristocratic hypothesis of the division between the classes, the class of the hands and the class of the head, a division firmly established (and not moved beyond by us) in The Republic of Plato. But we must now hypothesize that this is not, except superficially, a division between town and gown, between middle class and intellectuals; it is a division rooted, tragically, at the very heart of the act of education. It is an old hypothesis that cannot work in a vast democratic society.

Fr. William F. Lynch, Christ and Prometheus: A New Image of the Secular

, p. 96-97

All the things in man’s world

All the things in man’s world are not good unless they are human and submitted to the laws of a human being. They must move through man. They have no unconditional or autonomous stage before they encounter man. The laws of economics and politics must be his laws, the laws of the human. There are no eternal laws of economics or politics to which he must submit, whether they be human or no. It cannot be said of him, though it is, that business is business and he must face it; or politics are politics and he must swallow it all; or war is war, with its own laws, and he must face all these things as though they were eternal laws of being and God. By the same token he cannot be told that modernization is modernization, with its own absolute, unconditional, and sacrosanct laws. 

Fr. William F. Lynch, Christ and Prometheus: A New Image of the Secular

, p. 53

Satisfaction, Distraction, and the Human Condition

One of the most remarkable features of the age we live in is that the most meaningful and important things in the lives of individuals and societies — things like religion, ethics, and education — must struggle for relevance against a tide of nihilism. The comfort which has come with the satisfaction of all of the basic material needs of humans in the modern world along with the various distractions that have been invented to occupy and pacify the human mind have made the task of educators, missionaries, and anyone else who still believes in the importance of ideas perhaps more difficult than it has ever been. Whereas Christians of earlier generations had to confront the passionately held beliefs of those with rival philosophies and religions, Christians today must confront an enemy which is far more destructive, a sort of passion for apathy, or what might appropriately and simply be called nihilism.

It is a universal truth of the human condition, elucidated by St. Augustine of Hippo in his Confessions, that “the human soul on earth is always restless.”1 The combination of satisfaction and distraction in the modern world, however, has provided a seemingly endless string of temporary alleviations for this restlessness, preventing the restless human soul from ever finally reaching a point of satiation or boredom with worldly things. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter heaven,” not because there is anything intrinsically wrong with wealth but because the rich man is so entrapped by his wealth that he fails to search after something higher and more ultimately satisfactory.2

The rich man of Christ’s statement, who is nearly synonymous with modern man generally, has separated himself from the human condition and so, in a sense, from his own human nature. He does not “redeem the time” by seeking to live a life of meaning and significance but instead merely passes the time.3 As Henry David Thoreau pointed out already about those around him in the middle of the nineteenth century, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. … A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work.”4 Most of these “games and amusements” have assumed a nature that is unrelated to the life of man in the truest sense of that phrase. As Fr. William F. Lynch has pointed out, modern man has “create[d] a night-time culture, and a kind of time within it that has no relation to the day or to the work we do during the day.”5

One of the oldest forms of play, and the most essential, is the communal play of religious ritual. Religious ritual, however, is not a mere amusement, unlike the play of modern man. Just as the play of children, such as the care little girls give to their baby dolls or the war games of boys, is a kind of preparation for the sorts of tasks they will have to encounter as adults, liturgy is a form of pure play for the soul. Fr. Romano Guardini, a Catholic priest and thinker, once wrote, “it [the soul] must learn not to be continually yearning to do something, to attack something, to accomplish something useful, but to play the divinely ordained game of the liturgy in liberty and beauty and holy joy before God.”6

Even when modern man does find himself, usually through accident or coercion, confronting something of significance, such as one of the great books, he refuses to confront it with his whole being. He confronts it as if he were a neutral observer. As Michael Vander Weele writes, there has been an “attempt to defuse reading by separating it from the rest of life.”7 We must, however, “read with our lives.”8 Modern man has forgotten the fundamental truth enunciated by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, that “God and the devil are fighting … and the battlefield is the heart of man.”9

The first and most basic question, then, for the Christian, for the educator, for anyone interested in a life of thought and meaning, is what to do to overcome this indifference to the great existential questions. The only really viable answer to that question is to live such a life oneself. Mahatma Gandhi perhaps more than any other well-known figure of the last hundred years embodied and most succinctly stated this principle: “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. … We need not wait to see what others do.”10

1 Michael Vander Weele, “Reader-Response Theories,” in Contemporary Literary Theory: A Christian Appraisal, eds. Clarence Walhout and Leland Ryken (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), 128.
2 Matthew 19:24 (King James Version).
3 Ephesians 5:16 (KJV).
4 Henry David Thoreau, Walden, ch. 1.
5 Fr. William F. Lynch, Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2004), 55.
6 Fr. Romano Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy, http://fdlc.org/Liturgy_Resources/Guardini/Chapter5.htm (accessed 12 November 2013).
7 Weele, 128.
8 Ibid.
9 Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Book III, Chapter 3.
10 Mahatma Gandhi, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 12 (New Delhi: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1964), 158.