Friday, 31 December 2010

Two Thousand and Eleven?

Tonight, lots of people will make resolutions for the New Year, look back on the old with regret, satisfaction or a combination of the two and look towards the seemingly boundless possibilities of twelve brand spanking new months to live through.

For my part, I have only one hope. It is something that I looked forward to this time last year, but which did not then materialise. It is not particularly earth-shattering, but it does make me nervous about going outside or turning on the TV tomorrow.

It has now been ten years since the turn of the millennium. Prior to that, we had been accustomed to describe our years as two sets of double digits (nineteen eighty-nine, eighteen fifteen, etc.), but the moment the millenium hit, it seemed most sensible to describe the year as a single number; to wit, the Year Two Thousand and so on. Last year, I looked forward with some excitement to the end of this pattern. It would again become fashionable to have double digit years. Twenty-ten was about to arrive.

Alas, it didn't happen. Throughout the past year, invariably and with very few exceptions, everybody has gone on saying 'two thousand and ten' despite the superfluous two syllables this added to the obvious alternative.

But this year- this year I'm certain will be the year for this important cultural language shift. People would have to be mad to say 'two thousand and eleven' rather than the much shorter 'twenty-eleven', wouldn't they?

Wouldn't they?!

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

St Thomas Becket

An excerpt from the Christmas sermon given by Thomas Becket in T.S. Eliot's play 'Murder in the Cathedral'.

Reflect now, how Our Lord Himself spoke of Peace. He said to His disciples 'My peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.' Did He mean peace as we think of it: the kingdom of England at peace with its neighbours, the barons at peace with the King, the householder counting over his peaceful gains, the swept hearth, his best wine for a friend at the table, his wife singing to the children? Those men His disciples knew no such things: they went forth to journey afar, to suffer by land and sea, to know torture, imprisonment, disappointment, to suffer death by martyrdom. What then did He mean? If you ask that, remember then that He said also, 'Not as the world gives, give I unto you.' So then, He gave to His disciples peace, but not peace as the world gives.

Consider also one thing of which you have probably never thought. Not only do we at the feast of Christmas celebrate at once Our Lord's Birth and His Death: but on the next day we celebrate the martyrdom of His first martyr, the blessed Stephen. Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ? By no means. Just as we rejoice and mourn at once, in the Birth and in the Passion of Our Lord; so also, in a smaller figure, we both rejoice and mourn in the death of martyrs. We mourn, for the sins of the world that has martyred them; we rejoice, that another soul is numbered among the Saints in Heaven, for the glory of God and for the salvation of men.

Beloved, we do not think of a martyr simply as a good Christian who has been killed because he is a Christian: for that would be solely to mourn. We do not think of him simply as a good Christian who has been elevated to the company of the Saints: for that would be simply to rejoice: and neither our mourning nor our rejoicing is as the world's is. A Christian martyrdom is no accident. Saints are not made by accident. Still less is a Christian martyrdom the effect of a man's will to become a Saint, as a man by willing and contriving may become a ruler of men. Ambition fortifies the will of man to become ruler over other men: it operates with deception, cajolery, and violence, it is the action of impurity upon impurity. Not so in Heaven. A martyr, a saint, is always made by the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. A martyrdom is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, not lost it but found it, for he has found freedom in submission to God. The martyr no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of martyrdom. So thus as on earth the Church mourns and rejoices at once, in a fashion that the world cannot understand; so in Heaven the Saints are most high, having made themselves most low, seeing themselves not as we see them, but in the light of the Godhead from which they draw their being.

I have spoken to you today, dear children of God, of the martyrs of the past, asking you to remember especially our martyr of Canterbury, the blessed Archbishop Elphege; because it is fitting, on Christ's birth day, to remember what is that Peace which He brought; and because, dear children, I do not think I shall ever preach to you again; and because it is possible that in a short time you may have yet another martyr, and that one perhaps not the last. I would have you keep in your hearts these words that I say, and think of them at another time. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Saturday, 25 December 2010


A relative, reading my last post, challenged me to stop whinging and do something positive to re-emphasise the mystery of the Incarnation. So I wrote this piece- about a week ago, but it seems most appropriate to post it today. I had intended it to have a kind of zooming/panning effect- from outside in the town to inside the creche to the Child in the manger and then to Him in His Mother's arms, but I fear some of the metaphors may have inhibited the effect. On their own, I think the stanzas work, but I'm not sure if the thing works as a whole also. Anyway, feedback is welcome. Merry Christmas to all!

A west wind blows, bleak chill forlorn,
Like icy oceans' rising tides,
And past is the time for wheat and corn
But the House of Bread abides;
And in its midst, amid the rush
Of census-driv'n humanity,
Unseen, unnoticed, is a hush
In the place of God's humility.

All men may seek the comfortable
And shy away from any pain;
The mighty and the miserable
Alike reach for perceivèd gain,
But inches above a dirty floor
Where few but animals have trod,
The thin and prickly ends of straw
Scratch the new-born skin of God.

Strong wine is drunk in palaces.
Though bureaucrats prefer it thin,
Kings laugh and talk, as callous as
A killer on the cusp of sin.
But Jews enjoy their Sabbath rest,
Recalling their commandments ten,
And at a Jewish woman's breast
Tonight God drinks the milk of men.

Most mothers, having given birth,
Have idolised their newborn child
And, overcome with joy and mirth,
To former pain were reconciled;
But She whose pain is yet to be
Is silent, and with feet unshod
Contemplates this mystery:
The human face of God.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Burying the Lead

Why do we Christians shy away from the big selling points of our religion?

Last night I was helping out at the Combined Churches' 'Carols in the Park' at Warragamba, in which my parents' church is heavily involved (my minimal contribution was to assist, in an ecumenical gesture, some of the young people from my brother's Anglican church down the road, who had set up a balloon animal stall for the children). Now one would think, given that it is Advent and Christmas is on the horizon, that this would be the logical time to talk about the Incarnation.

But no.

In between carols and musical items, there was a very well done puppet show put on by a Christian group, very professional and amusing and the children lapped it up, but the puppet talked about Jesus as King, and urged the kids to 'make Him your king'. All well and good, you might say, and fair enough. Then there was a short speech/sermon by the local Anglican minister, and he consistently spoke of Jesus as 'Son of God', but never as 'God'. Nothing truly objectionable there, either, you might say, and I can't really argue with that. No one expects you to use all of Jesus' titles in a short presentation.

But the fact is there was nothing said during the whole night that couldn't have been very easily accepted by an Arian. And this bothers me.

I mean, why would we shy away from the Incarnation? Surely this is Christianity's biggest selling point? What other religion is based on the idea that God (not 'a god' from a pantheon but 'the God') became human? Nobody else has anything like that! This is a word worth preaching. So why are we reluctant to talk explicitly about it?

On the face of it, you would imagine that the more gung-ho and evangelistic of Christians would see the attractive potential of this doctrine and make it the centre-piece of their evangelistic pitch. But it almost never happens. And then we're shocked and annoyed when, at Easter, some fired-up atheist on the radio deplores Christianity's belief in 'divine child abuse'. It never occurs to us that we've left ourselves wide open to the charge by talking about Jesus the way we do.

Nor is the Incarnation the only central doctrine we tend to sideline in public. I've recently been reading this book, which restates the classic Christian ideas about eschatology and shows how far we've drifted from them in the way we tend to talk about the afterlife and the end times. Too many Christians have believed for too long in a kind of Platonic afterlife with some Christian features, and the authentically Christian endgame (the General Resurrection) has all but fallen off the map. Last night provided another example of this when our Lord's resurrection was briefly mentioned thus : "Then on Easter Sunday, Jesus came back from the dead. So, if you believe in Him, when you die, you can go to be with Him forever." I cringed at that, and imagined N. T. Wright appearing and turning over tables and chairs a la Our Lord in the Temple.

Why don't we make more of these doctrines? They are, after all, utterly unique in terms of world religions and distinctively Christian. They are also unusual in their own right and attention-grabbing. And they have some shock value, particularly in a secular Western culture that still thinks it knows all it needs to about Christianity even though it has forgotten most of what it used to know. Idiots that we are, we've put the letters page (or maybe the cartoons?) on the front page and left the lead story for page six.

Friday, 3 December 2010


Loan words are curious animals. Most of them are harmless enough. Kimono means more or less the same in English as it does in Japanese. But now and again, you come across an unusual specimen that has come to mean something quite different in its new environment from what it meant in its original tongue.

I recall, for instance, the surprise on both sides when, living in France a number of years ago, I happened to remark upon an instance of déjàvu. I naturally assumed that, since the word was French (literally meaning 'already seen'), I could simply lift it back across the linguistic divide with no harmful side effects. To my surprise, my French interlocutors had no idea what I was talking about. Was it my accent? I tried a few more times in as un-English a way as I could. Incomprehension persisted. Eventually, I had to explain the concept to them, which they immediately understood. It turned out the French don't describe déjàvu as déjàvu; only English-speakers do that.

I have recently come across another linguistic borrowing in the same vein, but exported from English rather than imported this time . I speak of the use speakers of Asian languages make of the word "fighting". It tends to be used alone as a kind of exclamation and its meaning seems to be located, as far as I can gather, somewhere between, "Chin up!", "Go for it!" and "Hang in there!". I first met it in a Korean TV show called Full House (unrelated to the 80s American sitcom) in which the heroine would say it frequently when facing a difficult situation or trying to encourage someone. I have since heard it on the lips of a number of my students when facing exams or when their course workload is weighing heavily on them.

What interests and amuses me not a little about all this is that they expect me to understand what they mean because, of course, it's an English word. Which I do, but only because I have some acquaintance with Asian people and Asian culture. It doesn't occur to them that an Australian wouldn't pat his mate on the back if he'd had a bad day or was facing some difficulty and say in a bracing tone, "Fighting! Fighting!" just as it never occurred to me that the French wouldn't describe déjàvu as déjàvu.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

As Advent Begins

There is something wonderfully accessible about Advent.

Perhaps part of it is the long lack of focus that tends to obtain during Ordinary Time. That is certainly true for me, wherefore I have been looking forward to the season for quite some time. But I think that mostly Advent is accessible for much the same reason that Dante's Purgatorio is the most accessible part of the Divine Comedy- it's where we are.

Who is not acquainted with longing? Who does not know the desire for something just out of reach? Who has not felt the thrill and sweet pain of awaiting something promised but not yet received? The spring in the step as one embarks upon a long journey, the accelerated heartbeat as the plane takes off on its way to a foreign country, the joy of anticipated reunion- sehnsucht is part of the universal human experience. "How long, O Lord?", we ask in eager anticipation.

Or it can have its darker side. Orwell speaks in 1984 of the way in which pain drives out principles until all one desires is simply for it to stop. Many of us, young, affluent and comfortable, are insulated from such an experience, but myriad others are not. Persecutions and injustices and bloodshed go on, and those in the middle of them cry out, "How long, O Lord?" in agony and desperation.

Advent is where all of us are. If we allow ourselves to be free of our distractions long enough (or even, sometimes, if we don't) we are aware that all is not right in the cosmos. There is a lack. There are problems. There are atrocities and petty selfishnesses and parasitic wasps. We know within ourselves that the world is not the way it is supposed to be. Much closer to home, we know that we are not as we are supposed to be. At a most basic human level, we sense our alienation and dislocation.

Some of us know that that for which we long, that for which we hope, is Christ. He Who will put all to rights, the universe's rightful sovereign, is coming. We try to strengthen in ourselves the desire for Him. He, cure of our miseries, better than our hopes, will not delay.

He came once before, and we know His face. We had the opportunity to get to know Him. And He has left behind Him, for our sake, the Church which bears witness to Him, and the Spirit through Whom it speaks and which sanctifies its members.

But He has not come back yet.

And so we Christians wait, knowing Him for Whom we wait. Knowing Him, Who brings into focus our hopes, desires and longings, our distresses, difficulties and failures, knowing that He will fulfill them all and bring them to their predestined end.

Monday, 22 November 2010

The Kingdom of Heaven is Like...

Spooky supernatural stories will have to wait. I have another poetic offering in the offing. Not my greatest work, I'll admit, but some of the lines are fair to decent. Feedback is most welcome.

While others might have found their place
By giving in and saving face,
And many are the kind that chose
To swim the way the current flows,
I far prefer to such a set
The ones not loath to make a bet
On odds unfair and prospects bleak
And risk the loss of what they seek,
Who disregard the passing fad
And do not miss the things they had
When sold was all their earthly wealth
In hopes of winning joy by stealth.
No sure thing is the hidden yield
Beneath some undistinguished field
Which randomly is bought and sold
Because it may hide buried gold.
And what of him whose only gain
Consists in fruit of oyster's pain
For which he'd give up all to take?
It may well be a clever fake!
Such ventures will not ever earn
The smile of an insurance firm,
Nor would economists approve
As valid a financial move
Which had such low chance of success,
Whose sure end would be sore distress
For anyone who chanced to take
Such low odds for so high a stake.
But sense and safety won't suffice
For dungeon-dwellers, 'mid their lice,
Who won't accept their grim surrounds
But second-guess the dubious grounds
On which their fellows built a case
For keeping to one's proper place.
A prison schedule keeps the mind
Alert and fit, but disinclined
To look beyond it's narrow walls.
But somewhere out there, something calls...
An unobtrusive, subtle sound,
A snatch of music echoing round,
A half-remembered melody
Like waked love or old company;
A siren song scores have declined
That grabs the heart and wakes the mind.
Though many happy minds remain
Encelled, with means to entertain
Themselves for endless hours on end,
A few, a very few, contend
That only by their breaking free
Will they save their humanity,
And maybe even come upon
A greater one than Solomon.
So contrary to all advice,
A small band reckons small the price
And, staking all on what they'll find,
They smile and, trembling, leave behind
The multitudes who found their place
By giving in and saving face.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

I Write Like...

I discovered (courtesy of Fr Ray Blake) this site, which purports to analyse your writing style and tell you to which famous writer your writing is most similar. Curious, I gave it a shot, and apparently...

I write like
H. P. Lovecraft

I Write Like by Mémoires, journal software. Analyze your writing!

I had put in the text from a lecture I gave a while ago on Galatians. 'Peculiar,' I thought, 'I wonder how reliable it is.' So I pasted in an old blog post. Same result. So there you go. Maybe I should leave off the poetry and try my hand at a spooky supernatural story sometime.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Strains of Beowulf

Given the title of this blog, it would be bizarre and perverse to refrain from providing a link to this very nice reading and step-by-step explanation of the opening lines of Beowulf (found in, of all places, the Telegraph!). So I won't.

The reader's pronunciation is slightly different from the way I was taught, but not by much. A delight to hear the ancient words articulated once more.

Monday, 15 November 2010

The Diverse Significances of the Humble Poppy

A clash of cultural symbols, by turns amusing and interesting, took place last week the day before Remembrance Day. The symbol was the poppy. For English speakers (and the French as well, I imagine), the poppy conjures up images of Flanders, the Somme and crosses row on row. For the Chinese, on the other hand, it conjures up the collective memory of the two Opium Wars and humiliation at the hands of foreign powers. Read about the aforementioned clash here.

In fact, I had a much smaller-scale version of the same clash the following day. A number of my students (the overwhelming majority of whom are Chinese) inquired after the flower I was wearing (I had been to a service earlier in the day). I explained to them its significance and, having done that, told them the name of it. Immediately, electronic dictionaries appeared and a flurry of typing ensued, whereupon a collective, almost simultaneous, gasp went round the classroom. Shock registered on a number of faces, followed by questions and remarks such as, "But...but...isn't it illegal?" "You must not have this flower. It is bad" and the like.

That such things can have such divergent associations in different cultures fascinates me, diplomatic incident or no. What intrigues me particularly in this case is the fact that, contrary to his advisers, David Cameron still wore the thing. Of course, cultural associations don't de facto trump each other, but it has become an almost reflexive habit of us Westerners over the past forty-or-so years to give automatic deference to other cultures before our own. Cameron's breaking of the mould is slightly refreshing and I can't help wondering if it's a precedent for something.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Implications of Language Reform

In the New Year, I will be visiting China, so in recent days I have been brushing up on my Chinese, which had been lying in a lumber room growing mouldy. I tell you this by way of lead-in to the following anecdote. The other day, I was chatting with one of my students during the break between periods. This particular student hails from Taiwan and I had some particular questions about some items of Chinese vocabulary, which I proceeded to write/draw for him (the distinction between writing and drawing fades somewhat in a pictographic language like Chinese). It was at this point that the conversation took a turn for the interesting. My student didn't understand what I had written. And, surprisingly enough, not because of my dodgy handwriting.
In the 1950s, ostensibly to encourage greater literacy and increase efficiency, the Chinese communists reformed the language by introducing simplified Chinese characters to replace many of the traditional ones and introducing the pinyin system for foreign learners of Chinese. Warren Carroll, one of my favourite historians, despises the pinyin system and refuses to use it in his works, opting instead for the older Wade-Giles system, but I've never felt any particular animosity towards pinyin. The romanised spelling of Chinese words which is used in that system is rather counter-intuitive, but once you get the hang of it it's more or less phonetic, and unlike the Wade-Giles system it is capable of depicting the all-important Chinese tones. Unlike Carroll, I don't see anything particularly Marxist in pinyin.

Simplified characters, on the other hand, are a different matter. I had been technically aware of the distinction between simplified and traditional characters before, but wasn't aware of any practical implications (apart from making them easier to remember and therefore read) before speaking to my Taiwanese student, whose name is Mars.

A spelling reform in a European language is a purely practical matter of standardising writing so everybody is spelling things the same way. It may accrue political overtones depending on who supports or opposes it, but it is not by nature a political thing. This is because European languages use an alphabet. The letters of the alphabet denote, more or less approximately, the pronunciation. They do not denote meaning. Spelling reform, therefore, can only ever be an attempt to conform writing with current pronunciation or new conventions regarding depicting particular sounds. Chinese, on the other hand, does not use an alphabet. The various components of characters may contain a hint of how to pronounce the word but mostly they denote meaning. Which means that when you change characters, you change meaning. As Mars explained to me with a few examples, by simplifying characters the nuances of meaning that words formerly had are lost. This naturally has repercussions on how people think.

Does this sound familiar? It should.

Interestingly, I discover that there was a second attempt at further simplification in the 1970s which did not go down well and was rescinded.

Quant a moi, I fully intend to continue brushing up on the simplified characters if for no other reason than that they are easier to learn and read. But, following this conversation, I can sympathise with Chinese outside the People's Republic who see them as a form of cultural rape. Yet another thing the Communists have to answer for.

Friday, 22 October 2010

For John Milton, Concerning the Barbarous Nature of Rhyme. A Retort.

A shadow passed across the world, as those who saw can tell,
The day that, with a deaf'ning crash, Rome faltered once and fell;
And Cicero turned in his tomb, but no verse from him came;
Catullus' lyrics, like his corpse, grew cold; he said the same.
And eastwards, where an emperor yet sat upon a throne,
Men chose words for precision, and left their art alone.
Thus Homer's six dactylic feet, whose sound would bless the ear,
Were saved and savoured, handed on, but no one wrote their peer;
The Versifiers left their pens and gave up prosody,
But Providence was moving, moving imperceptibly;
Soon from the mist-filled valleys of the Frankish realm there came
A rumour of a righteous king, one worthy of the name;
From out his mouth came eloquence in Frank and Roman words,
More earthy than the badger's lair yet lofty as the birds;
And many men then came to him to see if it were so
An emperor was in their midst like those of long ago.
He called to him the artisans, the skilled of mind and hand
And then like falcons sent them forth, that all throughout the land
His tribe might feel transcendent warmth, with vision magnified
By craftsmanship's forgotten fruits, exceeding ancient pride.
Then men recalled magnificence, exulting to regain
A past surpassed by things within the mind of Charlemagne;
And in the days to come, though some achievements came to naught,
The sparks remained, and others fanned to flame what he had wrought-
In later years, when tongues were changed and others were no more,
In newbuilt towns were heard the sounds of those called troubadour.
A troop of trav'lling wordsmiths were these Carolingian sons,
Each man a gold-tongu'd Orpheus who captivates then runs,
And each one left behind him sheer enchantment when he'd gone,
A ling'ring vision built of lyric verse of Occitan:
Of ladies unattainable the lowly fain would woo,
Of cunning foxes, Roland's horn, of tales told anew
Of Arthur and his knights- these were the subjects of their song.
It broke upon the people like the sounding of a gong.
And ere long this unprecedented, mesmerising style
Had found a place among the race of England's scepter'd isle;
In noble rhyme did pilgrims wend their way to Canterbury,
In self-same form was one knight sworn to uphold cortaysie
While seeking for a man of green that he had seemed to slay
Whom he must journey far to find, and find ere Christmas Day;
The lilting sound of English words, their rhythm and their shape,
Made drunk the cream of England like the crushing of the grape;
Their interlocking sounds, like jigsaw pieces, like a jar
And lid did show our tongue's true worth thence in perpetua;
The very ideal Form of verse was this, its hard-won peak! -
Thus English made its own that which was sought in vain by Greek.
And all the poets gathered round and marvelled at the sight,
That such a humble language should ascend to such a height.
As for a hoard of scattered jewels, they grabbed and grasped around
That each might show his peers his own rendition of the sound;
The Muses smiled as they surveyed this thing they had achieved
And blessed the poets, who in turn revered what they'd received
And handled with grave reverence this sacred gift of rhyme,
As circumspect as priests, or actors in a pantomime,
Yet joyful with an almost Dionysian delight-
They came before an altar every time they sat to write.
So Spenser wrote in wonder of his virgin fairy queen,
The Bard improved on Petrarch in ways hitherto unseen,
And Robert Southwell's verses, which he offered with his blood,
Were kept by grateful hands the day his gore was mixed with mud;
Then Donne, late as a cleric or as first in passion's heats,
Did sigh to write of fleas and maps and various conceits,
And Pope and Dryden tried their hand at epic; with respect
Translating from the masters who were mouldy with neglect,
But reasoning such brilliant verse could yet more brightly shine,
To set it off, they placed it in a rhyming dual line.
Then lest the rhyme grow hoary with convention as with age,
Will Wordsworth and Sam Coleridge began another stage-
For rhyme can work as epic but is not thereby confined-
It can appeal to both the learned and the simple mind.
Achilles is no more fit subject than a man and son
Discussing which place they prefer- this or a different one.
But while these poets wrote their works and all the Muses smiled,
A figure in a darkened spot was sulking like a child,
A man apart whose hardened heart did curse them as uncouth
For writing rhyme, which he believed the realm of wayward youth
And Philistines- he far surpassed such unsophisticates:
"Blank verse," he said, "is better for our tongue's inherent traits."
And so he cursed the verse that rhymed, his face towards the wall;
Its very sound was bitter to his ear, like bilious gall.
The poets disregarded him and kept on just the same.
"He is," they said, "a harmless man- John Milton is his name."

Friday, 1 October 2010

Glimpses of the Age of the Soapbox

"The past is a foreign country," said L.P. Hartley, "they do things differently there."

In recent weeks I have had the at times frustrating but also rewarding privilege of proof-reading and editing my grandfather's memoirs. The experience has been enlightening, to say the least. In it, my grandfather details his childhood growing up during the war (at 13 he was overseeing a factory because there were no experienced men left to fill the job), his years as an itinerant preacher in Queensland and his subsequent years as pastor of various Baptist churches.

What has struck me most (and there have been several things that have struck me) is the difference between the culture of the 50s, when my grandfather was an itinerant driving from town to town in a "gospel wagon", and the culture now. Simply put, there is no way the kind of evangelism my grandfather practiced would work now. Not just the content of the message but the methodology.

A slight tangent. There is a fellow whom I regularly see who preaches from a soapbox (actually a small platform) outside the Queen Victoria Building opposite Sydney Town Hall a few evenings a week. He is, I think, Baptist, or certainly from that tradition of preaching, and almost never does anybody stop to listen to him. Mostly, people are embarrassed that he is there. Some, no doubt, are offended by things he says (he invariably sets up shop during the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and preaches hellfire in shrill tones to the passersby), others are simply put off by the fact that he is there at all, waxing eloquent to bustling crowds of the indifferent. I admit I usually have the latter reaction, even when I happen to agree with what he's preaching about, and I feel like taking him aside and telling him, "Mate, you're not helping the cause here. You're just making people more alienated from Jesus than they were before."

Yet, returning to my grandfather's memoir, in the 50's my grandfather was doing a very similar thing. He would park his wagon in the main street of a country town or a Brisbane suburb, stand up in the back and begin preaching. And a crowd would gather. People would come and listen. Some would heckle, of course, but others wouldn't. Occasionally, there might even be converts. He tells of one time when he was assisting a Baptist church in Park Ridge, south of Brisbane, over the course of a few months. As part of the work, they initiated a Sunday school and would drive through the town to pick up children and take them to the church. As the weeks went on, the number of children who wanted to come rose steadily until they had to sell their vehicle for a larger one to accommodate them. This would not happen now, I think.

I don't think these reminiscences are symptoms of a rose-coloured view of the past or, indeed, are isolated examples. For example, I think of what Frank Sheed used to do, first in Sydney and later in London- very much the same style of thing.

What does this mean? Were people more spiritual in the 1950's? Are they less spiritual now? Or is there some other reason? One could, I suppose, argue that people who had lived through the war would naturally be more open to God and anyone claiming to speak for Him. On the other hand, can anyone deny that today's generation is more hungry for meaning than any within living memory? Alternatively, it could be merely evidence of different things appealing to different generational cultures. Perhaps both theories are true to one degree or another.

There are of course practical considerations to take from that observation. If soapbox preaching was accessible to one generation but not to another, there surely must be some mode of evangelism which would appeal to the latter as soapbox preaching did to the former.

In any case, it is enlightening to get a glimpse of this foreign land where getting up on your soapbox did not automatically make you a pariah and an oddity.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

St Augustine on Hillsong

When St Augustine visited Hillsong last week, many interested parties plied him for comment on Australia's biggest and most influential mega-church. At the time, he was strangely silent; however, through conniving and skullduggery, I have managed to obtain portions of the manuscript for his Sunday morning sermon tomorrow. Though he doesn't mention Hillsong by name, I think readers will agree that his visit has clearly made an impression, and that he has some important things to say about it to his own congregation:

What kind of men are they who, fearing to hurt those they speak to, not only do not prepare them for imminent temptations, but even promise the happiness of this world, which God did not promise to the world itself? He foretells toil upon toil, that will come upon the world right to the end; and do you wish the Christian to be exempt from these labours? Because he is a Christian, he is likely to suffer more rather than less in this world.

For the Apostle says, 'All who wish to live piously in Christ will suffer persecution.' Now if you will, you shepherd seeking your own advantage not that of Jesus Christ, let Paul say, 'All who wish to live piously in Christ will suffer persecution,' and do you say, 'If you have lived piously in Christ, all good things will be yours in abundance. And if you have not children, you will take up and nurture all men, and not one will die on your account'? Is this your way of building? Notice what you are doing, where you are placing a man. He is on sand, this man you are setting up. The rain will fall, the floods will come, the wind will blow; they will beat upon that house of yours and it will fall, and great will be the fall thereof.

Raise him up from the sand, set him upon a rock; let him whom you wish to be a Christian live in Christ. Let him note the indignities and sufferings of Christ; let him observe the sinless Christ paying for what He had not stolen; let him attend to the words of Scripture, telling him, 'The Lord chastises every son whom He accepts.' Let him prepare himself for chastisement, or else not seek to be accepted.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Great-Grandson of Discovering the Classics

This week, I finally finished Milton's Paradise Lost.

I confess I have mixed feelings about it. I should emphasise, though, that that is a personal reaction. It would be futile to deny that this is one of the great works of English literature. Certainly I have no intention of denying it. Let me therefore unpack some of my impressions, for what they are worth.

The Poetry

Milton really knows his way around iambic pentameter. And he knows how to sustain it for the long haul. That's no mean feat. Shakespeare could take advantage of the nature of dialogue to allow him some variety in his use of that metre, but Milton, though he has several series of long monologues (I'm not sure if its legitimate to call them dialogues when its mostly long speeches replying to each other or whole books of recounted narrative in direct speech), also has masses of poetic description sustained for pages. To maintain that in iambic pentameter is impressive.

And some absolutely delicious lines result. Who could deny the delectability of a line like 'So glozed the tempter and his proem tuned'? How I would love to use that in a conversation one day! Or this description of ante-deluvian women: 'Bred only and completed to the taste/ Of lustful appetance, to sing, to dance,/ To dress, to troll the tongue and roll the eye.' Or the description of Noah as 'the only son of light in a dark age'. Wonderful.

I was a bit put off by Milton's aversion to rhyme (this would have been alleviated if he had accorded any affection to alliteration, but nothing was apparent). He has strong views on the matter- he speaks of rhyme as 'the invention of a barbarous age, to set off wretched matter and lame metre' and those who will regard its absence as a defect are, to him, 'vulgar readers'. But he refuses to be constrained by 'the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming', whatever anyone else may think. To which, my hackles being raised, I was of a good mind to retort, "Hey!" in a wounded and indignant tone. But that is a rather inarticulate way to reply to a great English poet, so this vulgar reader has a good mind at some point in the future to craft a poetic protest defending rhyme in heroic couplets (and yes, they will be in iambic pentameter). Watch this space.

The Story and Theology

There's no way of treating the narrative and its theological ideas and implications separately, so I won't.

There's no denying that Milton writes a cracking tale, rousing and suspenseful. It does go on a bit in parts, and the modern reader is likely to get bogged down in a few bits (so, perhaps, even some older readers- Samuel Johnson declared of the poem, 'None ever wished it longer than it was.'), but the narrative as a narrative is very well-crafted. Particularly notable bits, and certainly the most memorable ones, are the opening in Hell, the account of the war in Heaven (very anthropomorphically told, but Milton sidesteps this by Raphael's explaining to Adam that he has had to translate what happened into terms Adam can understand) and most especially the temptation itself.

This latter is a particularly brilliant piece of work. Milton extrapolates from details of the Fall narative in Genesis and ties these together to make a temptation scene that is dramatically complex but utterly plausible. The reader, even with the benefit of retrospective knowledge, cannot help but be tempted, if only vicariously. Milton does this by drawing attention to things which the reader of Genesis too easily passes over. Eve meets a talking snake. Naturally, she does what we all would do- wonders how a snake could talk. The snake, who has been possessed by Satan, informs her that he ate of a particular fruit which, somehow, endowed him with the ability to reason and understand and this has made him capable of speech. Where is this remarkable fruit, wonders Eve. The snake leads her to the forbidden tree. She knows what it is, but begins to wonder. If an animal can gain abilities and faculties proper to creatures higher than it in the hierarchy of being (in this case, human faculties) by eating its fruit, what would happen if she ate it? What would she then be capable of? She begins to wonder about the prohibition as well. Surely the prohibition was a test. But what kind of test? Did God, through the mediation of the angels, tell them not to eat the fruit of this tree because He didn't want them to eat it? Or did He tell them not to eat it to see if they would? Was it a test of their ability to reason independently, rather than just follow arbitrary orders? Did He actually secretly want them to eat of it the whole time? All the while, Satan remains completely in character as the snake, not telling Eve to do anything, but all the while suggesting and encouraging her in these trains of thought, until at last she eats. It is a masterfully conceived scene.

Of course, right at the outset, Milton declares the purpose of the poem to be to 'justify the ways of God to men' and much ink has been spilled on whether or not he succeeds. A lot of this ink I haven't seen, but I have read the poem myself and that, I believe, entitles me to an opinion. There are two extremes on the matter, and those at least I have read. On the one hand, there is Blake's assertion that Milton could make Satan an interesting character but not God and the angels (the angels in particular strike one as cardboard cutouts, in stark contrast to the demons in the first couple of books who are remarkably distinct) because Milton was 'of the Devil's party without knowing it.' On the other hand, there is C.S. Lewis' assertion that those who are offended by Milton's God feel thus not because He is somehow different from the Christian God but because He is the same. "Many of those who say they dislike Milton's God," he says, "only mean they dislike God." Interestingly, the edition of Paradise Lost that I have puts an interesting spin on Lewis' assertion. It is edited with an Introduction by Phillip Pullman, the well-known atheist and author of the His Dark Materials trilogy (which some have described as a kind of Chronicles of anti-Narnia). Pullman finds God offensive and repulsive, tyrannical, manipulative and cruel, the very opposite of loving or benevolent, and this picture he finds abundantly confirmed by Milton.

Contrary to Lewis, I too found such characteristics clearly portrayed in the character of God in the poem, and I do not believe any of them are characteristic of God as He is. It is worth asking, then, why God is depicted in this way.

Reading Pullman's introduction initially, I wondered if this portrayal of God might not be a consequence of Calvinist ideas. Milton was, after all, a Puritan (sort of), and I am not alone in finding the implications of TULIP to result in a God Who, though undeniably sovereign, is also morally repugnant. However, in reading the poem, I found this was not the case. Calvinism is nowhere particularly explicit and the more discomfiting aspects of Milton's God do not appear to be consequent upon Calvinist ideas. That appears to come from a quite different quarter, because it turns out that Milton was also an Arian.

One of the chief theological problems with Arianism is it naturally leads to a theology of 'divine child abuse'. Many modern atheists have accused Christians of subscribing to such an idea (admittedly, the tendency of some Christians to reduce the whole doctrine of Redemption to exclude everything except penal substitution doesn't help matters) but this is only because they don't get the concept of the Trinity. God is on the Cross as much as He is up in heaven. For Arians, however, the accusation is legitimate- they really do advocate a theology of 'divine child abuse'. So, in Paradise Lost, though it is never really made explicit (though a couple of passages come close), the distinction drawn between the Father and the Son so that they are two clearly separate characters means that the reader doesn't really see the Son as God to the same extent and in the same way as the Father, if at all. Thus, the Father's waiting three days while watching His angels battle and fall against Satan and his minions, then sending the Son out to win the day in one foul swoop, seems callous and cold-hearted. One is more likely to ascribe that characteristic to God than the Son's heroism in routing the foe. Likewise, the Father's acceptance of the Son's offer to sacrifice himself to redeem man introduces all kinds of problems on a character level. Whereas Milton could (albeit with difficulty) have demonstrated God's love for mankind by implying that the Son's gracious offer to be incarnated, suffer and die was something proper to God and consistent with His character, the reader is more likely to see the Father's pragmatic acceptance of this offer as God's proper act in that scene. Pullman admits that the Son is the more sympathetic character, but is also perfectly aware that Milton did not believe the Son was God, even if other Christians do, and thus it is the Father Who is the depiction of what Milton understood God to be like.

In addition to his Arianism, I could not shake the impression that a large part of the problem with Milton's depiction of God is the fact that he decided to make Him a character among other characters at all. There is some beautiful poetry associated with God throughout the poem, but little sense of transcendence or the numinous when God is treated of directly. God has speeches just like everyone else in the poem has speeches. There is little sense when the Father speaks that He is qualitatively different from the other characters around Him. More powerful, perhaps, but not fundamentally different. Of course, if one wants to treat of the transcendent or mysterious in a story, the easiest way is to never let the reader see it, like the way Tolkien never depicts or deals with Sauron directly in The Lord of the Rings. Moreover, though it is awfully difficult to write about the numinous in a narrative, it is not impossible. Kenneth Grahame achieved it with Pan in The Wind in the Willows in a scene that has never ceased to resonate with me since childhood (Pan? The goat-footed minor Greek deity, Pan? Yes, Pan- if you haven't read it, do so and tell me if you don't get goosebumps). Lewis, likewise, to a greater or lesser extent with Aslan and, above all, with 'the god of the mountain' (actually Cupid) in Till We Have Faces. Likewise H.P. Lovecraft in The Call of Cthulhu. Milton was a greater master of English than any of these; surely he could have pulled off a God who would inspire awe in his readers if he had wanted to. So, I don't know if I would go as far as Blake, but (much as I regret to say it) I believe Lewis far off the mark on this one. Milton's theodicy is, for me, a failure.

So, mixed feelings about Paradise Lost. I think it is inadequate in what it sets out to do (i.e. in how it works as a theodicy); on the other hand, if only all inadequate theodicies could be as spectacular and brilliantly written as this one.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Four Types

An interesting thought from Chesterton.

As long as you have a creed, which everyone in a certain group believes or is supposed to believe, then that group will consist of the old recurring figures of religious history, who can be appealed to by the creed and judged by it; the saint, the hypocrite, the brawler, the weak brother. These people do each other good; or they all join together to do the hypocrite good, with heavy and repeated blows. But once break the bond of doctrine which alone holds these people together and each will gravitate to his own kind outside the group. The hypocrites will all get together and call each other saints; the saints will get lost in a desert and call themselves weak brethren; the weak brethren will get weaker and weaker in a general atmosphere of imbecility; and the brawler will go off looking for somebody else with whom to brawl.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Prophetic Rumours

I've said it before and I'll say it again: sestinas are the dickens to write!

This one took me three days. The most difficult part is ideally you should write the final stanza first. Maybe some people write like that, but I just find it impossible. Anyway, I'm not too unhappy with the result, and it is even possible some of you may share that sentiment. So, by all means, feed me back.

The day the universe gave birth to man,
A stranger creature it had never seen,
And Nature then did tremble at the sight;
The earth lay still to kiss his fleshy feet
And heaven'ly hosts arranged in bright array
Did hover humbly just above his head.

The day, the grievous day, man bowed his head
In shame, and found himself less than a man,
Lost, lost from sight then was the former ray
Of glory by which all that could be seen
His spirit did transfigure. T'wards his feet
Was now where was directed all his sight.

Half-blind, self-blinded, salvaged dusk-dim sight
Did see but not perceive, for in his head
Stood now a marred mind, and cold defeat
Th'habitual taste now in the mouth of man.
A taint appeared to tarnish all he'd seen,
His thoughts now in perpetual disarray.

But misplaced blame the eye that's lost its ray
Does place on what it sees when its own sight
Is faulty. No fault lies in what is seen
But in what sees. And foolish is the head
That blames the agonising pain of a man
On hardened earth who walks on broken feet.

Long ages and vast distances the feet
Of man have walked beneath the solar ray,
And weary, weary is the soul of man
And seeking, always seeking is his sight
A half-forgotten image in his head,
The mem'ry of a thing he's never seen.

And shall he e'er behold the thing unseen
Or grasp the thing he seeks? Alas, that feat
Remains beyond the best that's in his head
Or heart, despite the brilliance of their ray,
And all attempts to render to his sight
The object of his longing kill the man.

But He Who made his head shall unforeseen
Soon come to man and wash his weary feet,
The cosmic array all trembling at the sight.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Election Night

While we watch with trepidation and eagerness while the votes continue being counted, here's the buzz from a slightly different election. I leave it up to the reader to decide if there is any correspondence at all between these political parties and the ones presently courting power in Australia.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Midday Meal Postponed

I cobbled this together during a quiet moment in class (my students were doing a writing activity) in solidarity with those colleagues of mine who are presently snowed under with marking (as indeed I will probably be before a fortnight has elapsed). Reading over it again, I can hear definite echoes of Chesterton's Ballade of the Suicide in the refrain, but I think this ballade has its own thematic and poetic integrity as well. Feedback is welcome. Copyright is mine.

I still have not yet had my lunch today
And now the clock is ticking towards three,
Yet still here at my desk I have to stay,
Marking endless mediocrity;
These students who assume stupidity
In teachers, with low marks I will repay.
You say I seem a tad deprecatory?
It's just I've not yet had my lunch today.

While colleagues come and go, as is their way,
Arousing in me endless jealousy,
Flitting like the restless popinjay
Which sounds its cheerful chirp from tree to tree,
From page to page to page relentlessly
My pen swoops down on ungrammatic prey;
An end to shed red ink I fain would see
Since I have not yet had my lunch today.

Oh, what I wouldn't give for one big tray
Of meat and rice- and cheese!- perhaps some Brie
Accompanied by a cup of karkaday,
But I can't even spare time to make tea.
I hear my stomach protest noisily;
Does my complexion seem a little grey?
Another essay. Health is secondary,
Although I've not yet had my lunch today.

O Prince, why send your progeny to me
To educate them? I know what you pay.
But I would gladly teach them, and for free,
If only I might have my lunch today.

Friday, 6 August 2010

St Augustine on the Transfiguration

The Lord Jesus Himself shone bright as the sun; His garment became white as the snow; and Moses and Elijah talked with Him. Jesus Himself indeed shone as the sun, signifying that He is “the true light that enlightens every man come into the world.” What the sun is to the eyes of the flesh, so He is to the eyes of the heart; and what that is to the flesh of men, that He is to their hearts…

Peter sees this, and as a man savoring the things of men says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” He had been wearied with the multitude. He had now found the mountain’s solitude; there he had Christ the Bread of the soul. What — should he depart once again to labor and suffering now that he had a holy love for God and a holy way of life? He wished well for himself; and so he added, “If you wish, I will make three booths here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” To this the Lord made no answer; nevertheless, Peter received an answer. “He was still speaking, when lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them.” He wanted three tabernacles; the heavenly answer showed him that we have One, which human judgment desired to divide. Christ, the Word of God, the Word of God in the Law, the Word in the Prophets. Why, Peter, do you seek to divide them? Is it not more fitting for you to join them. You seek three; understand that they are but One.

As the cloud overshadowed them, and in a way made one tabernacle for them, “a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son.’” Moses was there; Elijah was there; yet it was not said, “These are My beloved sons.” For the Only Son is one thing; adopted sons another. He was singled out in whom the Law and the prophets glorified. “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear Him!” Because you have heard Him in the Prophets, and you have heard Him in the Law. And where have you not heard Him? “When they heard this, they fell” to the earth. See then in the Church is exhibited to us the Kingdom of God. Here is the Lord, here the Law and the Prophets; but the Lord as the Lord. The Law in Moses, Prophecy in Elias — but they are servants and ministers. They are vessels: He is the fountain. Moses and the Prophets spoke and wrote; but when they poured out, they were filled from Him....

And in this glory is fulfilled what He has promised to those who love Him: “he who loves me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him.” … Great gift! great promise! God holds for you nothing less than Himself. O you covetous one; why isn’t Christ’s promise enough for you? You seem to yourself to be rich; yet if you do not have God, what do you have? Another person is poor, yet if he has God, what does he lack?

Come down, Peter! You wanted to rest on the mount. Come down and “preach the word, be instant in season, out of season, reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.” Persevere, work hard, bear your measure of torture — so that you might possess what is meant by the white garment of the Lord, through the brightness and the beauty of an upright labor in charity …Hear and listen, O covetous one: the Apostle explains clearly to you in another place: “Let no man seek his own, but another’s.” He says of himself, “Not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved.” This Peter did not yet understand when he desired to live on the mount with Christ. He was reserving this for you, Peter, after death. But for now He says, “Come down, to labor on the earth; on the earth to serve, to be despised, and crucified on the earth. The Life came down, that He might be slain; the Bread came down, that He might hunger; the Way came down, that life might be wearied in the way; the Fountain came down, that He might thirst; and yet you refuse to work? Seek not your own. Have charity, preach the truth; so shall you come to eternity, where you shall find security.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism- Part 2

The Negative Principles of Protestantism

Bouyer states that Protestantism "seemed to bring in an incalculable wealth of constructive power, even to consitute a rediscovery of what was capital and permanent in Christianity." The principles noted already are regarded by Protestants as alone "necessary and sufficient" for the Reformation. But, as we have seen, there was nothing in these principles, understood positively, that was essentially at odds with the Catholic Church. The question then arises, "How did a movement that seemed and still seems to bear within itself the power to rejuvenate and restore traditional Christianity, the Church of all time, come in fact to set up a Christianity disrupted from tradition and to injure and attack of set purpose the Church it had wished to renew?" Protestants, of course, would turn the question around and ask why the Church rejected Protestantism. But, as has been shown, to the extent that Protestantism upheld and strove for sola gratia, sola fide, sola Scriptura and soli Deo gloria, understood positively, the Church did not reject them but upheld these principles also. Thus there must be other principles which explain why what should have been a reformation became a revolt. Bouyer sets out to demonstrate two things in treating of these negative principles: 1) that they do not follow necessarily from the positive principles already mentioned, but are arbitrary to them; 2) that they have in fact undermined and stifled the practical application of the positive principles in the history and practice of Protestantism.

1) Sola Gratia -> Extrinsic Justification

In Luther's writings, two ideas ultimately become inseparable: i) grace alone saves us; ii) it changes nothing in us by doing so. Bouyer points out that the connection is not at all prominent in Luther's pastoral works, when he is teaching the Faith per se or speaking out of his own experience, but is front and centre in his polemics. Thus the notion that to expect or require change in a person is to deny the sufficiency of grace subsequently becomes a key Protestant idea. This is the source of a great deal of the faith vs. works polemic which is perennially popular from Protestant pulpits, in which the possibility of grace-sustained works tends to be elided over.

The New Testament, on the other hand, affirms at once the impossibility of any positive contribution of man to his salvation and at the same time the necessary fruitfulness of grace acting within man for his salvation. The tension may be seen in Romans 7 and 8, and most particularly in Phillipians 2:12-13, which may rightly be regarded as the key to an orthodox soteriology on this point. Luther, of course, hated James for not upholding extrinsic justification, but, in fact, Paul is not much better, consistently speaking of the new man and the old, the spirit and the flesh, a new creation and so on. The idea of a justification whose effects are invisible is foreign to Scripture. Indeed, Calvin saw the problem and advanced the distinction between justification and sanctification that remains standard for many Protestants. However, though this solves the problem, it is also a distinction unknown to Scripture.

Sola fide comes in at this point as well since, understood within the terms of extrinsic justification, faith becomes opposed to works rather than their complement and prerequisite. The Church was perfectly happy to deny the value of Jewish works of the Law, or works done prior to faith or without faith, but the Reformers went further, denying value even to works done by grace. Luther ultimately attacked the formula of fide caritate formata (faith formed by love, c.f. Galatians 5:6), regarding it as the ruin of all he set out to preach.

Bouyer cites the modern Lutheran author Anders Nygren, who agrees with Luther on this point, regarding his rejection of fide caritate formata as the highest point of Lutheran theology and subsequently writing a book ("Eros et Agape") in which an opposition between faith and love is made the hallmark of the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism. To do this, much of the Gospel of John and the two great commandments in the Synoptics are sidelined, and Bouyer regards this as a demonstration that Protestantism, by its adherence to extrinsic justification, has created within itself a crisis it cannot resolve.

How does extrinsic justification relate to or derive from medieval nominalism? Because nominalism denies the reality of substance or essence and reduces abstract universals to concrete particulars, it creates problems with the idea of change within and relations between beings. If a change takes place within me, so as not to multiply entities unnecessarily, the change must be regarded as having its source in me. Thus, to preserve God as the source of grace, grace can only work externally. Anything active that comes from within me must derive from me. Bouyer states, "If being is reduced to action, and action to what takes place in us, our experience is closed to anything transcendent, or else, on the assumption that the transcendent could intervene, it could only do so by reducing itself to becoming part of ourselves." Thus, on this view, extrinsic justification becomes necessary in order to safeguard the integrity of sola gratia.

2. Soli Deo gloria -> T-LIP & God Beyond Good and Evil

This is not unrelated to the last point. Within Protestantism, God's sovereignty almost immediately becomes bound up with the idea of the impossibility and rejection of any human activity, grace-informed or otherwise, with any religious value or 'merit'. Essentially, Protestantism came to accept that "it is impossible to affirm and uphold the sovereignty of God without a corresponding annihilation of the creature." Bouyer goes on:

[In Protestantism,] to suppose that man, as the result of God's grace, has the power to do acts good in themselves, even granted his total dependence on God, would be to destroy the gratuitousness of grace and so to deny the sovereign freedom of God's say that man, as the recipient of saving grace, could be himself pleasing to God is to be guilty of blasphemy.

Such ideas are clear in Luther, clearer in Calvin and pivotal in Barth. Indeed, Barth regards saints in the Church as being, rather than a testament to God's grace and holiness, an affront to them. Conceiving God's sovereignty as inversely proportional to any freedom or value, whether inherent or received, in His creatures derives, like extrinsic justification, from the reluctance of nominalism to multiply entities or to allow that substances/essences can be equal possessors of a particular universal, since nominalist philosophy does not accept either the existence of substance/essence or of universals.

What does Scripture say on the matter? On the one hand, as noted earlier, it disqualifies any attempt by man to ascribe to himself what belongs to the Creator. In Isaiah, the Almighty states "I will give My glory to no other," (Isaiah 42:8) and Isaiah says elsewhere, "All our justifications are like a soiled garment" (Isaiah 64:6). Job declares, "He finds fault even among the angels," (Job 33:23) and Our Lord Himself admonishes the rich young ruler, "No one is good but God" (Mark 10:18). But elsewhere Our Lord also commands His listeners, "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt 5:48). St Paul writes, "His grace in me has not been void," (1 Cor 15:10) and St John encourages the recipients of his first letter, "We are called sons of God and that is what we are" (1 John 3:1). There is a tension here and any adequate theology must account for it. Bouyer summarises:

The Bible sets God's 'inaccessible light' deny Him the act of creating or recreating anything of value outside Himself...[but] to emphasise how much the first creation, still more the second, attest by their intrinsic reality and goodness the incomparable reality and goodness of Him Whom they manifest...The God of Calvinism and Barthism...keeps all His greatness only if His creatures return to nothingness. The God of the Bible...shows His greatness in snatching them from nothingness.

Nominalism creates even more problems for God's sovereignty, however. The sovereignty of God, as a concept, requires that God be absolutely free, that none of His actions be constrained. To be understood in nominalist terms, however, this creates a gulf between the Creator and creature that goes beyond Christian orthodoxy. Given nominalism's rejection of transcendence as such and it's need to understand all things as singular, concrete and particular rather than as exemplars of abstract categories, in order for God to be God, He must be beyond all possible limitations, all possible particulars, incapable of being comprehended or understood by finite beings. This is somewhat similar to Eastern ideas of apophaticism or hesychasm, but taken to even greater extremes, because on this understanding God is, among other things, beyond good and evil, beyond true and false (Occam proposes this as the only acceptable definition of omnipotence or potentia absoluta). Thus the favourite Calvinist text of Romans 9:20-22 ("But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?' Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?") becomes not a rebuttal to those who would limit God's covenant but a rebuttal to anyone who would believe that God must be true to His own nature as He has revealed it, i.e. merciful, faithful and just. The infinite in nominalism must also be the indefinite. To refuse the possibility that God can leave men as sinners while regarding them otherwise or create some to salvation and others to damnation would be to limit His sovereignty. Conversely, a God Who makes us act and be freely is a God Who lessens and diminshes Himself precisely to that extent.

To demonstrate the deleterious effects of this philosophy on Christian theology, Bouyer takes the example of Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth on the 'analogy of being', and it is an interesting enough example to warrant a short digression.

2.1 Barthism vs. Thomism on Revelation

Thomas in his understanding of God's revelation of Himself to mankind puts forward the idea of the 'analogy of being'. This idea is designed to see off two possible errors:

1) that the Word of God is of like nature with human words and is thus reducible to them (this is essentially the present liberal position), thus the Word of God can be understood and manipulated by me in the same way my own thoughts and words can be.
2) that the Word of God has no relation to human words whatsoever; thus the Word of God must remain "an unresolved enigma, a symbol impossible to decipher".

Thomas skirts between these two errors, proposing a third alternative. Since God made all things, says Thomas, and thus all things are a reflection of God's mind (the mind of man included), it is possible for man to open his mind, illumined by faith, to the mysteries of God's Word, not limiting them within his own ideas but transposing and enlarging these to reflect God's Word truly, if imperfectly. Thomas calls this the analogy of being (a good historical exemplar of the analogy of being at work is the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, for instance in the concept of the Son being eternally begotten; here we see precisely this stretching and enlarging of human ideas, words and concepts to express infinite realities).

Karl Barth, however, regards the analogy of being as an aberration and tantamount to idolatry; in fact, he believes it indistinguishable from Error 1 above. He has precedent in this, because nominalist theologians of the late Middle Ages thought the same, though approvingly, because they believed Error 1 was correct. This was far from Thomas' understanding, however. Bouyer bemoans the fact: "Catholic writers are certainly to be blamed for [this misconception] but only through their subservience to fallacies that Protestants did not dream of criticisng, Barth least of all."

3. Personal Religion -> Individualistic Religion

Despite Luther's conservatism vis-a-vis liturgy and the sacraments (he was the only Reformer to uphold the Real Presence as an objective reality against Zwingli's symbolic and Calvin's subjective approach), there exists in him and in Protestantism from its inception the tendency to downplay the value of the sacraments and/or make their worth purely subjective. Thus personal religion, in practice, has no object outside itself. Several natural consequences flow from this tendency.

The sacraments, the Church (and even, potentially, doctrine c.f. modern liberal Christians) become only aids to individual faith or psychological stimulants. By implication, then, a person of strong faith doesn't need them and, since the person with least faith naturally thinks himself the person of strongest faith, we have, in the case of churchgoing, the classic line, "I don't need to go to church. I can pray to God at home." The standard Protestant response of quoting Heb 10:25 and saying, 'You need to meet with those of like mind; you need the support of your Christian brothers and sisters," misses the point. Thus faith becomes less and less a faith in salvation in a universal covenantal sense or faith in Him Who saves and more and more faith in my own individual salvation.

4. Supreme Authority of Scripture -> No Authority But Scripture

The supremacy of Scripture was very quickly married to absolute denial of any authority in the Church, present or past, either in its interpretations of Scripture (patristics), doctrinal decisions of Councils or the right of bishops or Popes to recommend or condemn ideas, or discipline in any way the Christians in their spiritual care (in other words, fulfill any of their pastoral responsibilities). Sola Scriptura, then, came to mean, not only 'Scripture is the supreme authority' but 'Scripture is the only authority'. Scripture did not merely trump other authorities (an idea the Church had always accepted), it replaced them. There were to be no other authorities, even ones subservient to Scripture.

Once again, this new idea derives from nominalism. The necessity of an external Word in nominalism precludes any immanence of it in tradition, external interpretation (eg. by any church) or in mystical experience. It cannot come through the agency of man in any form, lest it cease thereby to be of God. Thus the perennial Protestant temptation is to regard it as delivered direct from God, dictated to its human authors. Though many Protestants hold that Scripture had active human authors and as such is at once the words of men and the Word of God, the extent to which that idea affects how Scripture is read and understood can be shaky at times, and the temptation to deny it altogether often exhibits itself (eg. in John Owen, among others).

Positive and Negative Principles Confounded

The great tragedy of the Reformation, according to Bouyer, is that, since nominalist concepts and categories were largely taken for granted by all, almost no one, either Catholic or Protestant, thought to distinguish between the positive principles at the heart of Protestantism and the negative principles that were arbitrarily but intimately joined to them. So mostly each side fell to condemning the whole package wholesale or defending it wholesale. I would argue, contra Bouyer, that the Council of Trent did go some way towards separating the two and condemning only the latter (though far too late for it to do very much practical good; the lines were by then too clearly drawn and each side too deeply entrenched) but certainly on a non-magisterial level, that contention holds true more often than not. Three examples:

Exhibit A: Luther and Erasmus on the Will

The titles of their respective treatises (De Servo Arbitrio & De Libero Arbitrio- "The Enslaved Will" & "The Free Will', respectively) demonstrate the problem. Essentially, Erasmus tried to salvage free will independently of grace, while Luther tried to defend grace by denying free will. It occurred to neither of them to say that prevenient grace frees our will to respond to saving grace, or that grace, instead of declaring us free while we remain slaves, makes us free indeed. For both Luther and Erasmus, the idea that God and man act together in justification is a zero-sum game, like two men hauling something. The more one man does, the less the other has to (or can) do. For the corrective to both, see St Bernard of Clairvaux's De Gratia et Libero Arbitrio ("Of Grace and Free Will"- again, the title sets the tone, this time in the right direction). For St Bernard, God does all and man does all and there is no contradiction between the two. St Bernard maintains the paradoxical balance of Phillipians 2:12-13 whereas both Luther and Erasmus betray it in different ways.

Exhibit B: Personalism vs. Authoritarianism

As one reads the writings of the Counter-Reformation, it quickly becomes apparent that the extreme subjectivism and individualism of the Reformers was countered, not by an effective personalist alternative, but by rigid authoritarianism. Catholic writers of the period have a tendency to exalt external authority and make blind submission a virtue. This was effective to at least some degree in keeping Catholics in the fold, but it also persuaded lots of Protestants and reform-minded individuals that their conviction of the importance of engaged, personal religion could only be preserved by rejecting any external authority, legitimate or not, and replacing it with free-thinking.

Exhibit C: Predestination

If infinite equals indeterminate, God is either not the cause of our salvation or He is the equal cause of salvation and damnation since good and evil are in the Deity not intrinsic but arbitrary (as chez the Muslims). Calvin, of course, took the latter option. The Catholic response? Almost across the board it was urged "Just don't think about it." For example, see the admonition in St Ignatius of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises, "We should not make predestination an habitual subject of conversation." It is not surprising, then, that many people, to retain the traditional Christian doctrine of predestination in some form, jumped on board with Calvinism.

Both reactions flow from nominalist assumptions. Because nominalism is a purely empirical system, excluding anything not within our experience, thereby disallowing transcendence, it must conceive the kingship (sovereignty) of God in human terms, i.e. the more power the people have, the less the king has, and vice versa. An absolute authority that, by its very absolutism, enables (rather than destroys) the freedom of its subjects is thus literally inconceivable. Therefore, in the very effort of trying to maintain God as Wholly Other, Calvinism reduces Him to human categories and engages in a bit of ugly but covert anthropomorphism. Meanwhile, the Counter-Reformation sees the problem but sees no way out of it since, without noticing, it has become guilty of the same anthropomorphism, and thus covers its ears and sings, "Lalala!"

Decay of the Protestant Principles

According to Bouyer, the retention by Protestantism of nominalist categories and the ideas flowing from them led not only to "the neglect of the complementary aspects of Christian truth" but also inhibited and undermined the positive principles on which Protestantism is built. A few examples will suffice to make the point.

From Sola Gratia Back to Pelagianism

Extrinsic justification, designed to safeguard sola gratia, ultimately prohibits grace from having any visible effect. Thus mysticism becomes suspect, since God is not allowed to show Himself in the interior life, only externally (Bouyer mentions the violent reactions in Lutheranism against the Lutheran Collegia pietatis of Arndt and Spener). In addition, the secular and sacred realms become domains which do not affect or touch each other. Both of these tendencies were ultimately reacted against and the pendulum swung back the other way, to a religion of moralism and of sentimental experience (the latter especially prominent in a lot of modern Evangelicalism, to the chagrin of some- Bouyer regards it as an inevitable development since grace had been understood as meaning man had nothing to do). Likewise, Puritanism soon turned Pelagian by trying to establish 'the heavenly Jerusalem' on earth, first in England under Cromwell, then in America. Since grace did not enable them to do this (it being a simple declaration of righteousness), they had to do it on their own, in their own power. Also Arminianism, reacting against Calvin's double predestination and the repugnance of TULIP, makes the will that accepts grace autonomous. Pure Pelagianism.

To speak of broader currents in Protestant culture. If for God to be sovereign man must be nothing, and since experience demonstrates that man is not nothing ("made in the image of God", as the Scriptures attest), to regard man as he is requires diminishing God. This naturally leads to things like the old Protestant maxim, "The Lord helps those who help themselves", a sentiment that would have horrified both Luther and Calvin. Likewise, one not infrequently finds in modern Protestantism a tendency to treat God as an equal (the "Jesus is my boyfriend" kind of spirituality present in many modern Praise and Worship songs exemplifies this) or as a commodity (for example, as a means to make your life better, Prayer of Jabez-style). All of these things run entirely counter to those genuinely Christian principles at Protestantism's heart.

From Personal Religion and the Sovereignty of God to Authoritarianism and Human Tyranny

By making a genuine valuing of personal religion, over against arbitrary regimentation, legalism and authoritarianism, into a force overly individualistic and subjective, Protestantism inadvertently raises up an even more authoritarian edifice than before. Moreover, it is an edifice that rests not on the sovereign and almighty will of God but on the arbitrary will of men.

Given the break with the Catholic Church, three options were open to Protestantism:

1) reject all spiritual authority save the individual (Anabaptists, Quakers, etc.)
2) give spiritual authority to the civil authorities (Lutheranism)
3)create a new church artificially through the contrivance of an individual genius (Calvinism)

All three options subject Christians to arbitrary and undeniably human authority. This is so in large part because of the relegation of concrete authority from God to an inaccessible heaven (or, arguably, the inaccessible past). Thus Luther, following a medieval tendency (which Henry VIII also ultimately followed) created a national church, subservient to the State. How this undermines effective living of the Christian life and, most particularly, effective corporate witness of Christ to non-Christians may be adequately seen in the current upheavals in the Anglican Communion. Calvin tried to avoid this implicit denial of divine sovereignty by creating a church from a Scriptural blueprint. But the Body of Christ cannot be remade by men- it must be created directly by God. Thus the Calvinist churches became, rather than divine institutions, human institutions established according to a divine plan.

The existence of these different approaches naturally gave rise to the concept of denominations (we too easily forget how novel the very idea of denominations is, and how foreign to the minds of most Christians throughout history). Subjectivism rules out an objective norm for faith, but when someone with such ideas founds a church, it is founded on his own subjectivism and thus is narrower and more oppressive to others. Such foundations, as they multiply, tend to become ever narrower and, in an attempt to halt the process, become ever more pedantic about rules of faith and doctrinal requirements, making matters of speculation into makers or breakers of fellowship (for example, the original Fundamentalists, who made fundamentals of some things which had never been so regarded by Christianity in the past and did not feature in any of the historic Creeds; moreover I know of and have been a member of churches that have split or have lost members over issues such as gifts of the Spirit, various eschatological scenarios, creationism, when the age of reason commences in children and inerrancy- issues on which Catholics, perhaps surprisingly, are perfectly free to hold a variety of opinions). Bouyer says:

Whenever [Protestant churches] refuse to dissolve themselves in practice into simple associations for worship, without any doctrinal, moral orliturgical law other than the whim of each, they tend immediately to become rigid frameworks in which a particular type of religious mentality or feeling unconsciously results in the opression of others. Moreover, in practice, even where the ministers do not wish or claim to be other than delegates of their own communities, churches of this type always end by delivering over their members to the subjective views of each minister.

The principle is seen a fortiori in worship. At the centre is the sermon, which the minister has written and delivers according to the message he wants to give his congregation. He chooses the readings based on what he wants to preach on, the hymns to fit the same topic (though, with the advent and increasing use of 'worship leaders' and 'worship bands' this is less the case than when I was growing up) and the prayers he usually makes up as he goes. The whole liturgy is moulded by the minister's personal devotion. "One cannot imagine," says Bouyer, "any system more completely effective in replacing the authority of God by that of the individual minister."

In addition, the Protestant use of sacraments, according to Bouyer, undermines sola gratia. In the sacraments, on the Protestant understanding, is found not what faith finds there but what it puts there. My baptism is merely an outward showing of an inner reality. The Lord's Supper is simply a memory aid. Thus both become not unlike the Jewish Law, merely exterior acts, bringing nothing that is not in the believer, becoming less necessary the more spiritually mature you are. "What, in fact," asks Bouyer, "is more contrary to the principle of a religion in which the gift of God is all than the reality of a religion in which there is nothing beyond what is brought by the personal devotion of each?"

Moreover, far from returning to the simpler worship of the early Christians, Protestants have inadvertently exacerbated late medieval worship tendencies and corruptions. For example, in the late medieval period in the West, the focus of Eucharistic worship had come to be predominantly on the words of institution. The older focus, however (still strongly maintained in Eastern Orthodoxy), was on the whole epiclesis, which ultimately derived from Judaism. The Reformers (most especially the Zwinglians) tended to drop the epiclesis entirely and regard as valid any Eucharist at which the words of institution were uttered, and this is still generally true of Protestants today. In doing this, rather than harking back to the apostolic practice of the Lord's Supper freed from medieval accretions, Protestants have taken a dodgy medieval idea and run with it, sacrificing essential and apostolic elements of Christian worship.

From Sola Scriptura to the Jesus Seminar

Protestantism, in making itself a Religion of the Book, opened itself to two contradictory tendencies. The first is to virtually divinise the Bible (certainly that's what it looks like to more than one Catholic to whom I have spoken), to eliminate as much as possible the human elements in it by, for example, postulating the inspiration of the vowel signs in the Masoretic text or remaining stubbornly committed to the exact scientific accuracy of Genesis 1 or the census numbers in Numbers. The Bible must be seen, says Bouyer, "as a spiritual meteor discharged suddenly onto our planet...innocent of any geological traces." In modern times, we have such things as the KJV-only crowd or the idea I once read (I forget where, unfortunately) that God providentially caused the original autographs to be lost lest people misguidedly worship them (a notion which, to a Catholic, confirms all his mistaken supicions about Protestant bibliolatry and, in any case, seems patently ridiculous since there are plenty of more immediate relics of Christ and the Apostles out there and nobody worships those).

In the nineteenth century, textual criticism made the human element undeniable and so this extreme view was reacted against and the human element elevated above or even to the exclusion of the divine element. Not being comfortable with a Word both fully divine and fully human, due to nominalist modes of thinking, the reactionaries relegated it firmly to the latter category; unable to see anything in Scripture that was not human, it became merely human literature, at best evidence of the 'religious genius' of the Hebrews.

Protestant Revivals

Bouyer sees, in addition to these examples of the negative principles undermining the positive, other examples of Protestants instinctively taking hold of the positive principles and fighting back against the negations that cancel them out. He describes at some length how he sees in such a category men like the Lutheran Pietists, Count von Zinzendorf and the Moravians and, most interestingly (to me, anyway), John Wesley and the Methodist movement. I won't describe at length these examples (this post is getting far too long- I had forgotten how extensive my notes were) but Bouyer sums them up in this way.

[Protestants such as these] remain faithful to the religion of the sola gratia, but do not consider themselves bound irrevocably to extrinsic justification. They do not cease to uphold the ideal of soli Deo gloria, but they have discovered anew the meaning of the words of St Ireneaus, 'Gloria Dei, vivens homo.' More than anyone they desire personal religion, but they escape the chimera of a person built on autonomy and subjectivism. More ardently than all the rest they believe in the Bible, in the Word of God in the Bible, as the source of light and life; but the very truth of their practical obedience to the divine Word is what preserves them from bolstering it up with philosophical assumptions that would prevent its being heard whenever it said anything different from what the system warranted.

In short, Bouyer urges Protestants to carefully examine and seek to understand the significance of these revival movements for Protestantism and the ideas it is founded on.

And what of the Catholic Church? Bouyer's final chapter is titled "The Catholic Church Necessary for Full Flowering of the Principles of the Reformation". Protestantism, he believes, will only be fully faithful to the principles on which it is founded in union with the Catholic Church. Separate, it will continue to undermine its own principles by the negations already mentioned. Likewise, Catholicism needs the living expression of that Christian core at Protestantism's heart. Protestantism should have reformed the Church and it still can, but it can only do so from within the Church; separated, it will continue to sabotage itself to a greater or lesser extent. "Catholicism," concludes Bouyer, "insofar as it is opposed to the principles of Protestantism, opposes only a systematisation of them that rests on fallacies and leads to their destruction. In reality, the real tenets of Catholicism, if seen as they are and not through a distorting lens, bring the Reformation principles the support refused to them by the structure actually made for them." Ultimately, rapprochement and reunion between the Protestant movement and the Catholic Church would bring about "the full splendour [of] the Reformation"- it would be "a Reformation at last achieved".

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism- Part 1

I recently finished going back through Louis Bouyer's "The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism", this time taking down some notes, and thought I would put some of what came out of that exercise here.

"The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism" is one of those fascinating books that comes at a subject one knows well but with insights and angles one had not considered. It is, moreover, a book with something to offend everybody. Bouyer's basic thesis is this: Protestantism was a movement of reform and renewal in the sixteenth century that recovered, emphasised and embodied several authentic and positive principles inherent in Christianity which had been in recent centuries marginalised or neglected. At the same time, it connected and confounded these positive principles with certain negative principles deriving from the nominalist philosophy of the late Middle Ages. These negative principles undermine, both theologically and historically, the full flowering of the positive principles; however the continued affirmation and embodiment of the positive principles within the movement means that there is a permanent and vital Christian core to the movement whose presence is not as pronounced in other Christian traditions. Bouyer states:

The main error of Protestantism lies in this; that it has come to associate inseparably, but quite artificially, the positive statements of the Reformation with certain negations, so that these have come to seem equally characteristic of its nature.

The negative, 'heretical' aspect of the Reformation neither follows from its positive principles nor is a necessary consequence of their development or vindication but appears simply as a survival, within Protestantism, of what was most defective and corrupt in Catholic thought at the close of the Middle Ages.

The first part of that thesis is likely to offend a large number of Catholics who regard the Reformation as an unmitigated disaster, think things would have been better if it had never happened, and look warily at anybody who would suggest that Protestantism might not be all bad or that Catholicism as it is lived and practiced in their particular neck of the historical and cultural woods is in any way deficient (they ought to know better but, for good or ill, most Catholics are human).

The second part is likely to offend almost all Protestants, who regard the Reformation as an unmitigated triumph, literally cannot imagine Christianity without it, and who regard warily anyone who would suggest that Catholicism might not be all bad or that Protestantism (or my brand of it, anyway) is in any way deficient (I guess most Protestants are also human).

Bouyer doesn't exactly say "A plague on both your houses!" but he does open up the possibility of a more honest mutual critique and assessment.

What I'm going to offer here is a kind of precis of my notes from the book (hopefully more readable than my actual notes), with some of my own ideas springboarding off these here and there. For my part, I am fascinated by some of the ideas here (though I don't necessarily agree with everything wholesale). Indeed, much of this is, for me, news rather than simply information; i.e. something told to you that demands a response. The responsibility of having lived in both camps and thus having the opportunity and duty of bringing in those elements of authentic Christianity from Protestantism which are inherent but less prominent in Catholicism is one that I continue to think about and, by God's grace, try to fulfill.

Positive Principles of Protestantism

1. Sola gratia

'Grace alone' is THE fundamental principle at the heart of Protestantism. The Reformers believed that, and Bouyer agrees with them. It is also the source of, and is intimately related to, sola fide, which is why in almost every case when you hear an apologetic defending sola fide, it actually ends up defending sola gratia. I'll come to sola fide later though.

Sola gratia undermines any attempt by man to contribute to his own salvation. It rejects any possibility of pulling oneself up by one's moral bootstraps, in the popular phrase, or any salvific action independent of God. In this sense, it rejects synergism, understood as God and man contributing parts to salvation independently. It lies at the core of Protestant conviction and is the beating heart of authentic Protestant spirituality. Bouyer quotes at some length both from the Reformers, from modern Lutheran theologians and from Protestant hymns to demonstrate its centrality, both for Protestant theology and at the popular level in worship.

Is sola gratia really an authentically Christian principle, and where did it find itself in Luther's day? The answer to the first question is clearly yes. It rings throughout the pages of the New Testament. Nor, come to that, is it particularly absent from the Old Testament. It had been affirmed and described clearly and at length by St Augustine, great foe of Pelagius and touchstone of Western theology (not to mention founder of the Order to which Luther belonged), in the fifth century. It had been upheld at the Council of Orange and would later be upheld without reservation at the Council of Trent. It had, however, as sometimes happens (even in Protestantism) fallen by the wayside in the actual practice of the Faith and in popular piety. In this sense, Luther's recapturing of it was a genuine recovery.

Bouyer sees two possible problems deriving from the centrality of sola gratia in the Protestant movement, which he deals with in turn. The first is the thorny problem of grace and free will. How can God "create in [us] to will and to acomplish" without absolving us from "working out [our] salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil 2:12-13)? In fact, Bouyer demonstrates, the problem is not as thorny as one thinks, as long as one is not a priori committed to a philosophy that sees the two as necessarily mutually exclusive. Garrigou-Lagrange writes, "In the work of salvation, all is from God, including our own co-operation, in the sense that we cannot distinguish a part as exclusively ours that does not come from the author of all good." God, in other words, as Lord and Creator of all, is also Lord and Creator of our freedom. How then do we explain sin and evil? Well, if we understand sin as something positive, an actual thing that we now have as fallen human beings, then this is indeed a problem. However, if we understand it as a lack, a privation, a negation, as Thomas Aquinas did, the problem ceases to exist. As Augustine points out, "Free will is a sufficient cause for evil, but for good it can do nothing unless aided by the Almighty Good."

The second potential problem Bouyer addresses is the possibility that, since Protestantism focusses so centrally on sola gratia (in contrast to Christianity up to that point where the Trinity or Christology had been central), this will warp the rest of its theology in the same way putting a bicycle wheel hub immediately next to the tyre, with some spokes shorter and some longer, will undermine its nature as a wheel and probably make it impossible to run. There have been even Protestant theologians who have proposed this as a real possibility- Schweitzer, for example, with his emphasis on union with Christ in conscious opposition to Luther's emphasis on justification by grace through faith. But in fact, Bouyer demonstrates that this problem is also ephemeral, quoting at length from Luther's commentary on Galatians where Luther uses sola gratia as a safeguard ensuring the integrity of his Christology (in this case the doctrine of Christ's full divinity). Thus, the centrality of sola gratia in the Reformers and in the Protestant movement, though unprecedented in Christian theology up to that point, is in fact an authentically Christian development.

2. Soli Deo Gloria

Luther had made God the sole cause of all, and man's salvation the principal effect. But the peril of sola fide (which is really just the human side of sola gratia) is the possibility of leaving out faith's Object- "justification by faith, independently of beliefs" in Eugene Menegoz's phrase, as exemplified in twentieth century liberal Protestantism. With soli Deo gloria or, put differently, the doctrine of the full sovereignty of God, Calvin sought, among other things, to head off that pass.

At the heart of Calvinism is a high idea of God, and the Calvinist will not settle for less. Everything redounds to God's glory. And God can in no way depend on a creature; He is by His nature totally sufficient in Himself. Calvin, in fact, is a man drunk on God, a quality that shines through in the greatest parts of his writing and is reflected in the most faithful of his successors. Well do I remember the way my conception of God was challenged and enlargened the first time I read A.W. Tozer's "The Knowledge of the Holy". One even finds strong echoes of this aspect of Calvin in a populist like Louie Giglio.

Bouyer puts forward the idea that Calvin's was a fundamentally mystical insight, one that he later attempted to systematise. A surprising assertion, but one that makes more sense the more one thinks about it. Why is it so shocking? Principally, says Bouyer, because most Protestants are "incredibly ill-informed about Catholic mysticism while Catholics know only the externals of Calvinism." To demonstrate his point, he examines some of these externals.

Calvinist churches are blank. This is striking and, often, offensive to Christians from more liturgical and sacramental traditions. They seem barren and empty and, thus, unworthy of God. There is nothing to lift the mind or heart to contemplate the Almighty and His works. But what is the significance of this barrenness? In fact, it has clear counterparts within earlier Christian history. The austerity of Calvinist churches derives from the same impulse that sent the first monks out into the desert- the desire to cut away all intermediaries and aids so that, in barrenness and silence, the soul might encounter God Himself.

In the void and in nakedness, if the soul does not reach out to God, it runs no risk of illusion and deception. It will not think that it advances or has found Him when it is only amusing itself, merely losing itself among trifles that have nothing in common with Him. Conversely, for the soul that truly seeks Him, at however great a distance, this virile austerity may have the most invigorating effect.

This is largely why Calvin's chief objection to Catholicism, likewise inherited by his successors (quite clearly in Tozer, Karl Barth and, a bit closer to home, in Ray Galea), is that of idolatry, of putting the creature in the place of the Creator and of arrogating to it that which belongs to the Creator alone. The impulse described above may be seen as, in part, a reaction to the decadence of the Renaissance Church, in the same way the early hermits and monks were reacting to the diluting of Christian devotion and practice after the legalisation of Christianity under the Roman emperors or, to take another example, the way the early Franciscans were reacting to the worldly thirteenth century Church. It is, however, a quintessentially Christian reaction, as evidenced by its consistent expression throughout Christian history. Nor, Bouyer points out, was it confined to Calvin. It is no coincidence that St John of the Cross, pre-eminent mystical theologian, arose and wrote at the same time as Calvin. Both men had the same preoccupation with God's transcendence, both saw idolatry as the chief evil to be guarded against (especially in its most religious forms) and both even use many of the same Scriptural texts to support their ideas.

Calvin also, by the by, was first to propose the concept of separation of Church and State. This seems ironic given what Geneva was like in practice, but Calvin understood that, if the soli Deo gloria is taken seriously, civil society must also acknowledge God, even if it is separated from the Church as an institution. All things ought to further the sanctification of justified men so that "in all things God may be glorified." Bouyer, interestingly, compares this aspect of Calvin's thought with St Ignatius of Loyola who was also very concerned for God's glory (ad majorem Dei gloriam) and used authoritarian means which flowed from that conviction. The Puritan state of New England and the Jesuit state of Paraguay were not so dissimilar.

3. Personal Religion

One principle that Bouyer elucidates that does not fit neatly into the solas (unless one places it under sola fide, which is not an exact fit but may well do) is the concept and practice of personal religion. This is the idea that, as Dean Inge says, "One cannot be religious by proxy." Faith, to be real, must involve the active participation, the conscious engagement, of him who holds it. Nominalism, in the sense of people who are religious through habit and nothing else, is anathema to Protestantism. Faith stimulates and engages the individual personality; if it does not, it is not faith.

The first expressions of this conviction may be seen in Luther's De libertate Christiana and De captivitate Babylonica. The former seeks to free the Christian from a legalistic/ ascetical system which he believes has become "a hindrance rather than a support" for the spiritual life. In the latter, Luther seeks to separate the soul from " the complexities of an ecclesiastical organ that would stifle it, once the means of grace were either misdirected or made ends in themselves." Luther wants to recall the Christian to a radical and direct dependence on Christ. It may be argued that in fact Luther sets the Christian up as a king in a desert, deprived of the supports necessary for living the Christian life, but this is not his main aim or desire.

The Protestant conviction that faith must be active and engaged explains the natural Protestant ambivalence towards any number of Christian practices that might appear to violate it, such as infant baptism, confession and set prayers, among others. It also explains the Protestant love of conversion stories and the penchant (taken to new heights in revivalist movements like Methodism) for proposing these as a standard for all Christians.

Some have argued that this element in Protestantism is at heart the religious aspect of sixteenth century humanism: the turn towards the individual, which has caused much harm in the centuries since and continues to do so in our own time. But is this in fact the case? Bouyer argues that it is not; that this aspect of Protestantism is the true heir of a thread woven throughout the Old Testament, coming to fruition in the New. Particularly in the prophets, God condemns the desire of the individual to hide behind the group, to cover his infidelity to the essence of the covenant with pedantically followed rituals (rituals given by God- a fact that, if anything, makes the trespass worse). That message rings throughout all the prophetic writings and reaches its apogee in Christ ("Say not, "We have Abraham for our father" for I tell you God can make sons for Abraham from these very stones.") Here, therefore, Protestantism has recovered an authentic Gospel principle.

And here again, curiously enough, concord may be found between unexpected bedfellows. The distrust of outward show that does not reflect inner spiritual reality is characteristic, more than in any other Christian group, of the Desert Fathers, whose realism and honesty in such matters can border on the discomfiting. For example, in one account, Abba Makarios refuses money from a visitor. "Why should I accept your money," he says, "I have everything I need." "In that case," says his visitor, "give it to the poor." "Absolutely not," says the Abba, "for if I did that, I should be proud for having done a good deed and my soul would be in a worse state than if I accepted the money for myself."
Likewise, it is notable that St Ignatius of Loyola wrote his Spiritual Exercises with the express purpose of "rous[ing] the individual to the most personal 'realisation' of his beliefs as a Christian." Again we find curious points of convergence between Protestants and their nemeses the Jesuits.

4. Sola Scriptura

Two great dangers within Protestantism throughout its history have been the opposite errors of illuminism and fundamentalism. The first of these does not accept any objective criterion of revelation and so can and does admit individual inspiration that is inherently unverifiable (this was true of the early Anabaptists and is presently true of some Pentecostals). The second restricts all communication between God and man to the Bible, thus making Christianity into a Religion of the Book (thus, in practice, not unlike Islam). Neither of these extremes, however, derive from Luther (indeed, fundamentalism of this sort was largely unknown in Christianity before the nineteenth century).

Authentic Protestantism, argues Bouyer, is found in Calvin's idea of the interior witness of the Holy Spirit in the believer agreeing with the Spirit-inspired words of Scripture; in the twentieth century sola Scriptura, in its positive sense, has found its fullest expression in the rich theology of the Word of God by Karl Barth. For the Reformers, Christianity was a religion of the Word, not a religion of the Book exclusively. Luther writes in De Concilio et Ecclesiae, "The Word of God cannot exist apart from the people of God. Who would preach it or hear it, if not the people of God? And how would the people of God arrive at faith, if the Word of God were not preached to them?" Here, God's Word and His Covenant People exist in a relationship of mutual, though unequal, dependence, underscored by God's grace mediated by the Holy Spirit who, in a sense, dwells in and supports both. The best of Protestantism derives from this positive view of Scripture in the life of the Christian people. Bouyer writes:
In spite of all its possible defects, Protestantism has lived by, and handed down, an authentic life, constantly renewed, precisely in the degree in which it has handed down the Bible and, with this, a living practice of recourse to it, of drawing nourishment from it as from a source of life, of finding in it personal contact with Christ, while interior experience is constantly referred to it as to the highest ideal. [Protestantism is a] discovered and maintained by familiarity with the Bible."
The extent to which Protestant life and practice draws on and is immersed in Scripture is, adds Bouyer, almost impossible for Catholics (or any other outsider) to appreciate. This does not help mutual understanding when it comes to apologetics and polemics.

Is such a high view of Scripture inherently foreign to Catholic faith, however, or is this an accident of history? Bouyer argues for the latter position. If one reads the Fathers, after all, their books and sermons are immersed in Scripture, and it is clear that they assume a substantial knowledge of Scripture from their congregations. Nor did this decline as much as might be thought during the Middle Ages- the sermons of St Bernard of Clairvaux (and, to a lesser degree, Aelfric) are very much along the same lines. St Augustine wrote, "To those books of Scripture alone now known as canonical I have learned to pay the honour and respect of believing firmly that none of their authors made any mistake in what they wrote."- a view that sounds surprisingly close to inerrancy (though the way Augustine approached the interpretation of Scripture was not inerrantist in the modern sense). Likewise, Thomas Aquinas wrote that the Scriptural books alone, in and by themselves, enjoy absolute authority, and that "sacred doctrine makes use of [other] authorities as extrinsic and probable arguments; but properly uses the authority of the canonical Scriptures as an incontrovertible proof, and the authority of the doctors of the Church as one that may properly be used, yet merely as probable. For our faith rests upon the revelation made to the apostles and prophets who wrote the canonical books."

Is such a view still current in the Catholic Church? Well, yes, at an official level. One need only read Dei Verbum from Vatican II or read Pope Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth to see that this is so. Certainly no Catholic theologian would raise any doctrinal authority to a level equal with Scripture. But nor can it be denied that, at a popular level, Biblical literacy and piety certainly do not obtain in modern Catholicism anywhere near the extent that they do within Protestantism. Though many Bibles were printed before the Reformation, both in Latin and the various vernacular languages of Europe, it was Protestant Bibles (in Germany and England) that became shapers of culture and language. And though the liturgy has always been and continues to be drenched in Scripture, more than one person to whom I have spoken who has left the Church has deplored the paucity of aids available to help the average Joe in the pew contextualise and internalise what he hears each Sunday.

This, as may be seen, is an anomaly in Christian history and it is, perhaps, part of the tragedy of the Reformation that the movement that could have renewed Biblical piety in the Church should have gone its own way for other reasons. The present state of affairs in Catholicism may then plausibly be blamed on ongoing suspicion by association, in the same way Catholics were ambivalent towards itinerant preaching during the late twelfth/early thirteenth centuries because of its association with the Cathars (until, of course, St Dominic came along and demonstrated that there was no reason orthodox Christians couldn't also preach as itinerants). This has decreased in the last century or so, but there is still a substantial gap to be closed.

Still, as before, it is curious to note where the closest convergence between Protestantism and its older Christian counterparts comes; for sola Scriptura, in practice and in spirit, has most in common with the monastic ideal, especially with lectio divina. Indeed, many Protestants already practice a form of lectio divina without knowing it. Moreover, having spent time in a monastery less than a week ago myself, I can testify that the constant presence of Scripture throughout the monastic day (be it in the continual chanting of Psalms or in private Bible reading) echoes and appeals to something deep in the Protestant psyche. Both monks and Protestants find in Scripture the principal support for their relationship with God.

Given the historical regard for and reverence towards Scripture in the Church, and the culture of Biblical piety so characteristic of Protestantism since its beginning, Bouyer concludes, "The supreme authority of Scripture, taken in its positive sense, as gradually drawn out and systematised by Protestants themselves, far from setting the Church and Protestantism in opposition, should be the best possible warrant for their return to understanding and unity." I agree, and I'm not the only one.

These are the four positive principles Bouyer puts forward as the essential core of Protestantism as a movement, principles undeniably Christian with deep roots in gospel soil, shared (at least in principle) with all Christians of all centuries but clearly in the sixteenth century in need of new emphasis and application. In my next post, I will continue my precis of Bouyer's book with my own reflections here and there, this time regarding the negative elements that Protestantism inherited from medieval nominalism.