The strangeness of it all

As I continue my reading journey into the rich and beguilingly complex tradition of Christian theology, I see more and more the inane ‘meh-nes’ of the challenge.  It’s not that I have a silly mentality that says “I have it right and you have it wrong”, irrespective of the facts or the evidence; it’s just that why would I espouse something I didn’t in fact think was right?

Gilbert K. Chesterton was no fool, and even a hundred years ago he recognised the pre-Richard Dawkins/George Bernard Shaw challenge to Christianity.  We forget all too easily that these challenges, if indeed they can be called that, are in fact very old, if not tired and weary challenges, to what is, arguably, a highly sophisticated if not nuanced discussion.  Chesterton made mention of “this halo of hatred around the Church of God.”  Of course there is.  This is a factual, true statement of the fact that where the True Church is, there will be opposition, hatred, persecution or whatever.  The Gospel draws and repels in near-as-damn-it equal measure!

It is not a surprise that Shaw begat Dawkins, in precisely the same way that Ludwig Feuerbach begat Karl Marx; Marx begat Freud and Freud begat Jean Paul Satre.  This begetting is as tedious as the begetting in the bible, but it serves a comparably important point:  We are where we are because of where we have come from.  Kierkegaard challenged the mid-19th century aggressors of Christianity, just as Chesterton challenged (in much funnier terms) the late 19th – early 20th century aggressors.  The point is that they are all of a piece:  a seemless woven thread of enlightenment…..wait…. of toxic enlightenment worldview that is simply blinded to a wider reality of knowing.  That’s why Paul Tillich asks – following Aquinas – why modern man, in this age of technology and specialisation, fails to ask questions about being, or about the God who is the Ground of all Being – a “fragmentation” of thought he rightly says is “symbolised only by the demonic.”

Continue reading

Pt 6: Response to C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain”

Guest post by theologian Dr Rob Knowles on The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis:

Part 6:  Response to Chapter 10. Heaven.

Turning now to Lewis’s final chapter, on heaven, then I agree with his point that the issue of the existence of heaven precedes any discussion of whether or not belief in heaven’s existence is escapist. If heaven exists, belief in it isn’t escapism, but realism. Since it is far more rational to assert that only God could create a heaven on earth than it is to assert that mere humanity could create a heaven on earth, then it is modernism’s utopian odyssey that is escapist, not Christianity’s eschatological pilgrimage. Moreover, since our heaven will indeed be a new heavenly Edenic earth, then the motivation to bring about reform isn’t lost to escapism either. We don’t get pie in the sky when we die, so much as a reformed earth. Reformation now becomes all the more assured now that we know that our reforming labours are not in vain.

Lewis is also quite right to argue that if heaven is good, then desiring it isn’t mercenary. Mercenaries serve themselves, but heaven is fundamentally about serving others. So, how can it be selfish to desire not to be selfish? As Lewis rightly argues, only the pure in heart want to see God, and so it is safe to assure them that they will.

I believe that Lewis is also quite right to argue that the desire for heaven is universal. And yet this true point, of course, contradicts Lewis’s other arguments that say that the damned don’t want heaven. Here, again, Lewis projects the demonic onto the human in order to make hell seem more palatable.

11613659

Continue reading

The Priest of Ypres

“In World War I Pierre Teilhard de Chardin had survived thirty months at the front; he rescued the wounded  – it was his job – under heavy bombardment.  A witness remembered his “rough hewn face that Greco had prefigured” and his “total lack of ecclesiasticism.”  One of the officers serving with him wrote, “Two features of his personality struck you immediately:  courage and humility.”  His regiment’s Tunisian sharpshooters, who were Muslims, used to say rather cryptically that a “spiritual structure” protected him when he plucked bodies from the ground in crossfire.  In battle, he rejoiced in his anonymity and in the front’s exhilaration.  Prescious few men left the Battle of Ypres with a beating heart, let alone a full stomach, let alone exhilaration:

ba9f6674d96a5f602a78b6b0aee1bbf0

“Nobody except those who were there will ever have the wonder-laden memory that a man can retain of the plain of Ypres in April 1915, when the air of Flanders stank of chlorine and the shells were tearing down the poplars along by l’Yperle Canal – or, again, of the charred hillsides of Souville, in July 1916, when they held the odour of death. . . . . Those more than human hours impregnate life with a clinging, ineradicable flavour of exaltation and initiation, as though they had been transferred into the absolute.”  The “clinging ineradicable flavour” was perhaps mud – the mud of Ypres in which two hundred thousand British and Commonwealth men died, ninety thousand of them lost in the actual mud.

Action he loved.  His ever increasing belief that God calls people to build and divinize the world, to aid God in redemption, charged every living moment with meaning – precisely why the battlefield gripped him.  “The man at the front is. . . . only secondary his own self.  First and foremost, he is part of a prow of cleaving the waves.”  He dared title an essay “Nostalgia for the Front”:  “All the enchantments of the East, all the spiritual warmth of Paris, are not worth the mud of Douaumont. . . . . How heart-rending it is to find oneself so seldom with a task to be accomplished, one to which the soul feels that it can commit itself unreservedly!”

When he entered the war, he was already a priest.  One dawn in 1918, camped in a forest in the Oise with his Zouave regiment, he had neither bread nor wine to offer at Mass.  He had an idea, however, and he wrote it down.

Five years later, he sat on a camp stool inside a tent by the Ordos desert cliffs west of Peking.  He reworked his old wartime idea on paper.  What God’s priests, if empty-handed, might consecrate at sunrise each day is that one day’s development:  all that the evolving world will gain and produce, and all it will lose in exhaustion and suffering.  These the priest could raise and offer.

In China again, four years later yet, he rode a pony north in the Mongolaian grasslands and traced Quaternary strata.  Everyday still he said to himself what he now called his Mass upon the altar of the world, “to divinize the new day”:  since once more, my Lord, not now in the forests of the Aisne but in the steppes of Asia, I have neither bread nor wine, nor altar, I shall rise beyond symbols to the pure majesty of the real, and I shall offer you, I your priest, on the altar of the whole earth, the toil and sorrow of the world.”

By Annie Dillard in For The Time Being, (1999), pg. 126-128

 

Pt 5. Response to C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain”

Guest post by theologian Dr Rob Knowles on The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis:

Part 5:   Chapter 9. Animal Pain.

Lewis’s chapter on animal pain is very interesting. Since Lewis acknowledges that he is just speculating when it comes to this matter, then we should be gracious in our responses to what he says. To begin with, Lewis argues that vegetables and non-sentient lower animals (e.g. earth-worms) do not feel pain. To me, this assertion seems reasonable since, as Lewis points out, such life-forms have no developed nervous systems.

I am less certain about Lewis’s argument that “merely-sentient” animals do not feel pain and that they react to stimuli a bit like sleeping humans do. That is, in Lewis’s view, in the case of merely-sentient animals, the body reacts to stimuli, but there is no conscious awareness of anything. Lewis defines consciousness as a selfhood or soulhood that recognizes itself as the same beneath the stream of sensations, a bit like a constant river bed beneath the river-water that passes by overhead. Given the distinction, in consciousness, between the river-bed and the river-water (to continue the analogy), consciousness is able to objectify – to an extent – sensory experiences as being “other” than itself, and so is able to “organise” them into a perception of succession, an “experience”, and not just into a succession of perceptions. Since, in Lewis’s view, merely-sentient animals can have a succession of perceptions, and not a perception of succession or “experience” (i.e. they have no consciousness), then they cannot consciously reflect that they are in pain, and so they don’t suffer pain.

11613659

Continue reading

Pt 4: Response to C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain”

Guest post by theologian Dr Rob Knowles on The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis:

Part 4:  Chapter 8 – Hell

In his chapter on hell, Lewis takes the three notions of “destruction”, “eternal torment”, and “privation” and then works them into a systematic unity. This leads to two difficulties. First, Thiselton points out: (a) that the Bible has three traditions in it about hell that seem to contradict one-another: (i) hell is eternal torment; (ii) hell is eternal destruction, or annihilation; (iii) all are saved; (b) that all three traditions have been considered to be “orthodox” in the history of the church, even though “eternal torment” has been the dominant view in orthodoxy; (c) that it would be hermeneutically-premature, given where scholarship has reached, to press these three contradictory traditions into a unity in favour of any one of the traditions, which seems to militate against Lewis’s conclusions.

Second, if Thiselton is correct, then Lewis entirely dismisses one biblical tradition – that of universal salvation. Even if it were right to press all the traditions into a unity then Lewis would still have to press (i) “hell is eternal torment”; (ii) “hell is eternal destruction, or annihilation”; and (iii) “all are saved”, into a unity – along with his emphasis on “privation”.

Some, for example D.A. Carson, are adamant that eternal torment is the nature of hell, and that all who do not believe in Christ go there. Lewis, on balance, seems to favour a kind of qualified annihilationism whilst still holding onto a perspective-dependent notion of eternal torment. Others, such as G. MacDonald (alias R. Parry), reconcile the biblical traditions in favour of “all are saved, but in some cases only after prolonged periods of punishment in hell”.

11613659

Continue reading

Pt 3: Response to C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain”

Guest post by theologian Dr Rob Knowles on The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis:

Part 3:  Response to Chapter 6 & 7 – Human Pain/Appendix by R. Havard (a Doctor)

 

I agree with most of what Lewis says in Chapter 6. Lewis rightly stresses three forms of remedial pain: (a) retributive punishment that is justly deserved; (b) spell-breaking and the redirection of misdirected fallen nature; and (c) proving our God-wrought faith and righteousness genuine to us. In particular, Lewis rightly distinguishes divine retribution and vengeance from evil vindictive passionate revenge – a kind of tabloid Lamech-style brutalism that is evil, self-centred, over-harsh or disproportionate, and seeks only to destroy.

Lewis is also correct to argue that remedial pain is universal, life-long, and unevenly distributed (i.e. complexly, and not simply, related to “just deserts”); and Lewis is correct to argue that remedial pain faces us with a choice: whether in response to it we choose patience, humility and repentance or whether we choose instead to run with the crowd and adopt attitudes of culturally-normal anger and cynicism. Finally, Lewis adds an interesting Appendix at the back of his book which basically shows that most medium term pain has a positive effect on character.

11613659

Continue reading

Pt 2: Response to C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain”

Guest post by theologian Dr Rob Knowles on The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis:

Part 2:

Chapter 4 – Human Wickedness

Chapter 5 – The Fall of Man(kind)

 

Response to Chapter 4. Human Wickedness

Lewis is entirely correct to emphasize the unhappy truth that we habitually deny our sin, or at least its seriousness, and that we deploy self-deceiving means to do so. Lewis is right to emphasize: (a) evil (anti-Trinitarian “Lord of the Flies”-type localist tribal) clique-dynamics that only look evil from the world of the broader public realm; (b) the role of certain sin-denying popular trends in (pretentiously boastful pseudo-intellectual pseudo-wise) psychoanalysis; (c) a reductionist approach to virtue (which stresses a chav-ethics of outwardly-brutal ego-centric drama-triangle sentimentality and victim-aping self-pity); (d) the finger-pointing self-evading blame-projecting strategies deployed within the superficial outward comparisons used by sin-deniers who binary-categorize only others as evil (using terms like “offenders” and “scum”); (e) the evil things said about “nature” and “finitude” as though God (the very paradigm of innocence, more innocent than a baby) were at fault; and, (f), the view that time alone (rather than Christ’s high-priestly work of (re-)consecrating the defiled and unclean) brings about cleansing from sin and guilt. All these emphases – (with my views added in brackets) – are true.

Two points come to mind, however, in response to what Lewis says: (a) Lewis’s use of the notion of “virtue” has more of a classical feel than a biblical feel. One can speak in terms of “the seven virtues” and of the “seven deadly sins”, but in my view there are more biblical ways to speak of “right and wrong”. To speak only classically about “sin and virtue” is itself a liberal sin-denying strategy. (b) There are also more biblical ways of speaking about the ways in which we disguise sin and hide it from ourselves. Lewis is correct to point out some of the contemporary manifestations of sin-denial, but there are strategies of sin-denial that pervade all cultures and that are manifest in the contemporary manifestations of sin-denial that Lewis notes.

11613659

Continue reading