“Read Sophocles”: Poetry, Philosophy, Beauty

2-volume 19th-century Bible, The Tollkeeper’s House, Toronto

In the midst of a philosophical discussion online, a philosopher/theologian friend (who teaches the “great books” at university) stated, “Read Sophocles.” The point was that if one were to read Sophocles, the philosophical position being elucidated would become clearer.

This is a good use of the classics. I still remember my first encounter with Antigone in high school and the stichomythia between Haemon and his father Creon, preceded by Haemon’s speech, including these lines:

Whoever thinks that he alone possess intelligence,
the gift of eloquence, he and no one else,
and character too . . . such men, I tell you,
spread them open — you will find them empty.
No, it’s no disgrace for a man, even a wise man,
to learn many things and not to be too rigid.
You’ve seen trees by a raging winter torrent,
how many sway with the flood and salvage every twig,
but not the stubborn — they’re ripped out, roots and all.
Bend or break. The same when a man is sailing:
haul your sheets too taut, never give an inch,
you’ll capsize, and go the rest of the voyage
keel up and the rowing-benches under.

Lines 707-718, trans. Robert Fagles (English lines 791-803), pp. 95-96

As the remaining events of the play bear out, Haemon is correct. Creon, King of Thebes, (in case you still need to read the play) has decreed that his nephew Polyneices (son of Oedipus), brother of the titular Antigone, is not to be buried, but Antigone seems to have done so, or attempted to do so. And so he is going to seal Antigone alive in a tomb. This ends up with Antigone, Haemon Creon’s son, and Eurydice his wife all dead and Creon repenting — too late.

There are lots of noteworthy points made and speeches and it’s well worth a read.

And, as with any good tragedy, whether by Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, Shakespeare, or Marlowe, you learn a lot through the human drama as it unfolds.

What I am trying to figure out is whether or not this is the chief end of tragedy. I’m not saying my friend thinks so. Maybe no one does, but sometimes, when you read the people promoting the “great books” or “classical education” or the Greek and Latin classics, when they turn on the tap of their rhetoric to convince you that this is a worthy endeavour, it often feels as though — for that moment, at least — the reason is because there are “lessons” to be gained from Sophocles, that we can learn about philosophy from reading ancient poetry, and not just the explicitly philosophical like Lucretius, and that this is the most important reason people should read the greats.

Maybe this is because they are trying to convince skeptical parents and donors that this is a worthwhile endeavour. And maybe I’m misreading everything. And hopefully what I’m about to say will resound with them all.

Whatever lessons and whatever philosophy, ethics, politics, can be gained from reading Sophocles or Homer (and it can, as I have just demonstrated), the basic philosophical utility of the classics is not necessarily the number one reason to read them.

To take up the classically Christian cause of this blog, the monks who copied the Latin classics would likely disagree. I have not read Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, for over five years, but as I recall, the Benedictines and Cistercians of pre-scholastic, monastic theology, read pagan Latin verse primarily for its beauty — chiefly Virgil, but also Ovid, Horace, Statius. This latter poet, as C S Lewis discusses,* was imagined by some in the Middle Ages to have been a crypto-Christian because of his portrayal of the gods. Philosophy was the schoolbook for philosophy (and they had more and more Latin Aristotle to read as time went on, directly from Greek, alongside Plato, and Calcidius and Boethius and Cicero).

Given that, theologically, they were steeped in Sts Augustine of Hippo and Gregory the Great, it is also worth noting that narrative fiction, such as Virgil or Sophocles or Terence (always a school text), was considered “lies”, so they would have read it (not Sophocles, given that he’s Greek) for the language, for its beauty and subtlety. The advice from St Augustine in De Doctrina Christiana to make your teaching beautiful as well as true (but, at the very least, true) was one they took to heart. And so they read the pagan classics.

As I say, I have no doubt that people in the great books and classical education camps are not reductionistic, and they certainly see the worth in reading something for its beauty. But it’s an important thought to keep in mind.

Let me close with an anecdote on this theme, then. Malcolm Guite visited Rome when he was still an atheist. And there, he encountered John Keats’ poetry and Keats House at Piazza Spagna. And through the sublimity of Keats’ poetry, God began to break through Father Malcolm’s unbelief and soften his heart, making him at least open to the possibility of God, although not yet a Christian.

And so we can find God in the beauty of the poets even without hunting for lessons in philosophy.

*C. S. Lewis, “Dante’s Statius,” Medium Aevum 25 (1956): 133–9.

Reflections on Ascension Sunday

This is the reflection that I put together for my worshipping community, the Urban Abbey in Thunder Bay.

Today we recollect the Ascension of Jesus the Christ back to God the Father where They reign united in eternity. This is the seal of everything else the incarnate God achieved for us during His sojourn on earth. God the Word, existing in eternity with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, in great and glorious compassion for the human race descended, took on flesh, and pitched His tent among us. He dwelt amongst us feeble, frail humans for about thirty years as one of us (in every way but sin!), and then He was abandoned, tortured, and brutally executed—only to triumph over the powers of sin, the flesh, the devil, and death, trampling down death by death and rising to new life in a glorified body that can walk through walls.

And here is where many Gospel presentations stop. We say: Do you acknowledge the great and glorious message of salvation that comes from putting your trust in this Jesus whom the authorities of this present darkness killed but whom God raised to life? And we repentant sinners answer: Yes. God, be merciful to me!

In Acts 2:24-36, St Peter ends the first proclamation of the whole Gospel by an Apostle thus:

For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
    until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ (Ps. 110:1)

Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Jesus is not just some guy or even some god who came down and died and rose again to save me from my sins. He has returned to the Father where He reigns and hears our prayers and is with us always to the very end of the age. By ascending, Jesus empowered the apostles to take up His mission to preach salvation to the ends of the Earth. An earthbound teacher would not be able to do that, but a risen, ascended, and reigning Lord could.

Given the importance of the Ascension, I would also like to say that this is a real, historical event, as real as Julius Caesar being stabbed to death on the Ides of March, 44 BC. While this probably should go without saying, I mention it because meditating on the reality that lies behind the words of Scripture can help us see the hand of God at work as well as the hearts of the Apostles. So, based on the narrative in Acts 1, Jesus rose up from the ground with the Apostles watching. Then a cloud hid Him from view, and He disappeared from sight.

I hope that it is a well-known fact that Heaven is not actually “up there” in the sky. We live in a one-storey universe. If “heaven” is the dwelling place of God Almighty, where Jesus now reigns with God the Father, it’s right here and now. In his book Miracles, C S Lewis posits the idea that, whatever the historical reality of what happened to Jesus at the Ascension, the Apostles perceived it as Him rising up from the earth because that’s what their minds can process.

I think He actually did rise up from the Earth, and that when the cloud enveloped Him, He entered the heavenly realm with God the Father (whatever that means!). Without denying the historicity of the event, we can simultaneously affirm its symbolic resonance. Encounters with God in the Bible are often literal mountain-top experiences.

When Moses met God for the first time, He spoke to him out of the burning bush on Mount Horeb, in Sinai. When Moses met with God and was given the Law, it was on a mountain, maybe the same one. When Solomon built a Temple for God to come and manifest His real presence amongst His people, it was on Mount Zion. When Elijah defeated the priests of Baal and God manifested Himself with might and power, it was on Mount Carmel. When Elijah encountered God in the “still, small voice”, it was on a mountain.

And so it goes, up to Jesus.

When Jesus manifested His glory to the disciples in the Transfiguration, it was on Mount Tabor. When He gave the new Law in His most famous sermon, it was on a mountain (it’s not called the Sermon on the Mount for nothing!). Tradition tells us that the Place of a Skull, Golgotha, where Christ was crucified, was a hillish-mountain.

These are just a few examples, but the point is: People meet with God on mountains. And the ascent to God becomes an important symbol and metaphor in Christian spiritual literature, whether we think of St John of Cross’ Ascent of Mount Carmel, or the Syriac Book of Steps, or the lives of monks and hermits who lived on mountains such as St Antony of Egypt, the monasteries of Mount Athos or, most dramatically, Meteora in Greece. St Gregory of Nyssa gives an allegorical reading of the life of Moses in which Moses’ ascent up Mount Sinai to meet with God is seen as our own ascent, as we leave behind the various things of this world, including even sense perceptions, for Moses enters the cloud on the mountain—as the title of a mediaeval mystical book calls it, The Cloud of Unknowing.

God is the Lord of all history; He has engineered these symbols to draw us to Himself. Christianity is the myth that comes true. So when we consider this pattern, it is only fitting that when God, Who inspired Scripture and Who made Himself manifest to the human race in these locations, chose to return to the Heavens, He would rise up from the earth. And then, as Moses entered the cloud on Sinai, so also did Christ enter the cloud before leaving our plane of existence and joining the Father in eternal glory.

Our response to this? Worship, comfort, assurance. Let us take to heart these words from Hebrews 4:14, 16:

Seeing that we have a great high priest that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

The Ascension by Phoebe Anna Traquair at the Mansfield Traquair Centre, one of Edinburgh’s empty churches

St Francis – Wild at Heart

Memento Mori: St Francis and Brother Leo contemplate death by El Greco

So, the men’s Bible study I’m part of just discussed chapter 10 of Wild at Heart by John Eldredge. I’ve always been skeptical about the book, but it gets helpful at chapter 6 when Eldredge moves beyond describing what he thinks a man should be and diagnosing our wound to discussing practical strategies for living in this world. Chapter 10 is called “A Beauty to Rescue.” As a chapter with some helpful tips for married men, this was good. One of the other guys observed, however, that if he were single he’d be pretty upset at the whole thing.

Indeed, this is one of the problems I have had with Eldredge — at times, he enshrines our own cultural attitudes as “real” masculinity. As someone with very dear and close friends and family who live full, healthy, spiritual lives and who happen not to be married, I take issue with the idea that every man has a beautiful woman to fight for. The preamble to the chapter shows that Eldredge needs to work through C. S. Lewis’ The Allegory of Love as well as sort out some ideas about ancient literature. Like, is Helen really a damsel in distress there to be rescued? Not only that, but romantic love is not the driving force of the Iliad, honour and prestige on the one hand and male friendship on the other are instead.

Nonetheless, most men fall in love with someone or something, something to die for, live for. In the Middle Ages, when the whole dominance of romantic love began to take hold in western literature, the ideal was of a woman of higher social rank than you, to whom you were not married, and who was your domina, your lady in the feudal sense. We get a lot of stories such as Lancelot being told by Guinevere to prove his love for her by purposely losing in jousts; Menelaus or Achilles would never have done such a thing.

The history of this idea is traced in the aforementioned Allegory of Love. It is called courtly love, and it was a main theme of the troubadours. Troubadours were the classy type of singer-songwriter of mediaeval France. Courtly love was a Big Deal in the 1100s. I’ve already written on this blog about how I think Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship is an antidote to this idea.

Another antidote comes a few decades after Aelred in the person of St Francis of Assisi. As a young man, Francis showed himself to be your average, normal Italian young man, joining local wars and suchlike. After recovering from his wounds, Francis was overcome by the Holy Spirit and had a powerful conversion experience wherein he rejected his wealthy, middle class upbringing and decided to become a hermit.

I won’t recount the whole story of St Francis (did that already). Francis, like most people in the broad-ish category of “monastic”, was a monomaniac for God. But he still had a beauty … well, not to rescue. It’s more like she rescued him.

Lady Poverty.

(Not Clare.)

St Francis and his band of little brothers (fraticelli) called themselves jongleurs de Dieu — jesters for God. Troubadours were the classy singer-songwriters. Jongleurs were not. They were common. So it was only fitting that these young men, many of them sons of wealthy merchants, sons of nobility, who have embraced Lady Poverty, would consider themselves and their preaching not as the artsy-fartsy troubadours but as the spiritual equivalent of the ribald jongleurs.

Poverty lay at the heart of Francis’ expression of the Christian faith. A complicated, sad story about mediaeval economics and human weakness will tell you about the Franciscans after his death. But while Francis lived, the ideal was that not only would no individual Franciscan own property, neither would Franciscan communities or the order.

The term we give for these friars and their comrades, the Dominicans, is mendicant. This is a word for beggar. In a world where wealthy men grew wealthier off the backbreaking labour of their unfree dependants, where merchants grew wealthy off charging unfair interest, where people went to war for the honour of their own city, where some lived in palatial grandeur while most lived in dirty hovels — in such a world, radical poverty such as St Francis modelled was a powerful statement of freedom from the world, the flesh, and the devil, a statement of the great freedom found only in Christ.

Embracing Lady Poverty was wild.

Christianity as the myth that came true

Eucatastrophe

I started reading Northrop Frye (I discuss one of his books here) when I mentioned to a colleague that, for my lecture on Christianity and classical mythology, I had a final slide called ‘The Myth That Came True?’ He told me about how he discusses Frye’s book Words with Power in his class about theories of myth. Frye is neither here nor there for this post, though.

The idea of Christianity as the myth that came true is one associated with that group of creative thinkers and writers, the Inklings. It most famously comes up in the story of C S Lewis’ conversion from theism to Christianity. He was walking in one of the Oxford gardens with friends and fellow Inklings J R R Tolkien and Hugo Dyson about myth and truth and suchlike things. Lewis’ feeling at the time was that all that he found beautiful was untrue, and everything he believed to be true was grim. The myths, such as the Baldr and Adonis, were beautiful but ultimately empty and meaningless, not bearing truth.

This conversation with his Christian friends drove home to Lewis the idea that myths themselves carry truths, and the greatest myth of all actually was true. Christianity is the myth that comes true: the God leaves his habitation, comes down, dies, and rises again. (This is not exactly as Lewis tells it.)

In his book Miracles, when discussing the Resurrection, Lewis discusses the relationship between dying-and-rising myths and the Resurrection of the Son of God. He refers to the gods that die and rise again every year, people like Osiris or embodied at some level in Adonis, as ‘Corn Kings’, and says that there is a fundamental difference between the resurrection of Jesus Christ and corn kings, in that he rises never to die again, and sets us free from death itself. Or something like that. (It’s been a decade, people.)

These gods who die and rise, then, from Osiris in Pharaonic Egypt to Baldr in Viking Norway, are at a certain level shadows of Christ, but ultimately not the real thing. Mythology, which is the basic mode of speech of all civilization (and here I cite not merely Frye, Words with Power, but Barfield (an Inkling!), Poetic Diction), is itself an approach to divine revelation — a sort of storytelling version of St Justin Martyr’s philosophical logos spermatikos. Not only in philosophy but even in mythology has the Word of God hidden Himself only to be fully manifest in Jesus Christ.

J R R Tolkien’s idea of eucatastrophe from his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ is another place where we see the mythic ordering of salvation history. Eucatastrophe is when everything goes horribly, horribly wrong, only to save the day. It is common in the best fairy stories, indeed, the best stories, according to Tolkien. The eucatastrophe par excellence is the death of Jesus on the cross. God dies. The Messiah is slain by foreign enemies having been betrayed by his people. And as a result, by his wounds we are healed.

These men did not simply think of myths in the way my colleagues and I like to problematise them in classes on Greek and Roman mythology. Sure, mythos is simply ancient Greek for story; Lewis and his colleagues all know that. But Lewis, having admitted that in the chapter on myth in An Experiment in Criticism goes on to discuss those particular stories that have a certain hold on us, many of which are repeated in different cultures. There is something powerful inherent in Orpheus and Eurydice, regardless of who tells us, whereas The Odyssey needs Homer’s poem.

This mythic mode, the sort also sought by their younger contemporary Joseph Campbell, is common to all cultures. And Christianity takes up the mythic mode and, rather than it being fabula makes it into historia — the stuff of flesh and blood, something you can stand on and rely on. It is beautiful and true.

Blogging Benedict: Tools for good works (chapter 4)

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

Chapter 4 of The Rule of St Benedict (RB) is about the ‘tools for good works.’ We have already set aside concerns about legalism, so hopefully we can read Benedict for wisdom about discipline — about being disciples, students, in the Lord’s service, and seeing these tools as the means by which we grow spiritually and become truly virtuous. Much of this chapter is simply a catalogue of commands, some moral, some more ascetic/disciplined.

A few for reflection, then.

“put a high value in fasting.” (p. 16 — page references to the Little Black Penguin translation by Carolinne M. White)

In the churches I have attended, the only two disciplines regularly discussed are read your Bible and pray every day. They are probably the two most central. The ancient ascetics always bind in this third — fasting. And, indeed, our Lord fasted. John the Baptist fasted. St Paul fasted. Esther fasted. Fasting has been an integral part of Christian discipline, east and west, Roman Catholic and Protestant, for the whole history of the Church. Well, until recently. Not being a historian of the modern church, I don’t know when the change occurred. But I know that it was practised and advocated during the Reformation and by such figures as William Law and John Wesley.

In our food-obsessed culture (see my post on gluttony), fasting can be truly counter-cultural. It can also challenge us to re-think our priorities. As Benedict says in this chapter:

“Do not be guided in your actions by the values of this world, and do not value anything more highly than the love of Christ.” (pp. 16-17)

That, of course, includes fasting. Fasting, recall, is a tool, not an end in itself. To use these tools wisely, we need discretion, we need purity of heart, we need to cultivate what Hesychios the Priest (fifth-century) calls ‘watchfulness’ in The Philokalia. RB:

“As soon as wicked thoughts spring into your heart, dash them against Christ.” (17-18)

This not only draws my thoughts to St Hesychios but to St John Cassian as well, whose allegorical reading of Psalm 137, which advocates infanticide, I have blogged about. Twice, in fact. Cassian’s reading says that the Babylonian children are to be considered our vices; C. S. Lewis gives the same reading in Reflections on the Psalms.

Watchfulness as advocated by the ancients is almost impossible. How can we actually pay attention to every single thought we’re having? Thinking about thinking is really weird, isn’t it? In this regard, one non-Benedictine discipline that may help is the Examen, a Jesuit practice whereby you prayerfully go through the day and examine your heart. Where was God? Where did you sin? I’ve not read extensively on this discipline; Richard Foster treats it in his book Prayer.

When Benedict closes his discussion of these moral and ascetic tools, he writes:

“These, then, are the tools of the spiritual craft. … The workshop where we diligently work at all these tasks is the enclosure of the monastery, in the stability of the community.” (p. 19)

We see here some truly Benedictine ideals, particularly stability and community. Too many of us — myself often included — try to go it alone. No wonder we fail. ‘It is not good for the man to be alone.’ (Gen. 2:18) And when things get tough in one circumstance or community, we often leave, rather than wonder if the problem includes ourselves. You will never be able to outrun your own sweat.

Technological Humanity (almost done The Benedict Option)

In this final chapter of main content in The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher discusses technology. Technology, he argues, is not neutral. Yet he does little to demonstrate this thesis at large outside of the fact that social media technology and the barrage of information (not really ‘knowledge’) on the Internet are probably bad for our minds and our ability to concentrate and engage in what is called deep reading.

Of course, technology may be bad. Or it may be neutral and used for bad purposes. If you aren’t paranoid about nuclear energy, for example, the same technology is useful for electricity for our homes as well as for blowing stuff up and killing thousands of people. Take your pick.

But the most important takeaway is, of course, our use of information technology.

This distracts our minds and fragments our attention. Fragmented attention makes sustained thought, meditation, contemplation, deep reading, difficult. This is no new discovery — hence my recent post quoting Burchard of Worms, c. 1000. C. S. Lewis complained that the radio — the radio — hampered his ability to do sustained reading and writing.

Our distractions have grown even more invasive and pervasive. We read brief posts and articles online, sometimes even good ones, and follow hyperlinks wherever they lead. We passively allow the Internet to set our agenda, while at the same time carefully crafting echo chambers where conservatives and liberals can avoid each other, except (of course) when they go trolling.

And when we’re done with social media, news outlets, and whatever else the Web has to offer, we can further numb our minds with Netflix.

I’m as guilty as anyone.

But if we want to get into habits of deep reading, deep thinking, rich prayer, silence, quiet, solitude. If we want to be able to stand against a world we perceive as corrupt and corrupting, we need to unplug.

We need the Desert.

This is why, after one final post about this book, I’m going to take a 1-week break from personal blogging, Facebook, and Twitter, and then see how I do when I resurface. I may return to this blog but not Facebook for a while after that… Technofast, here we come!

Eros and Anthropology (more on The Benedict Option)

St Teresa in ecstasy by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome (my photo)

I’m approaching the end of these posts about The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. The penultimate chapter of the book is about sex because this is one area that our culture is particularly confused about and contrary to traditional Christianity, and because it is an area that touches biblical, traditional anthropology deeply. I essentially agree about the core thesis of this chapter, especially that we need to grasp Christian anthropology properly if we are to live by Christian sexual ethics and teach it to our children.

In a culture that believes that any sex act between consenting adults is good, with an easy and high divorce rate, that is challenging the biological foundations of the family and gender, it is not enough for us to simply teach a historic Christian moral code. Eros and Venus need to be rooted in the wider philosophy of Christianity, and rooted in what Scripture and tradition teach us about the human person. Simply telling teens, ‘Don’t have sex before marriage,’ isn’t good enough anymore — it may never have been in the first place.

According to the moral code of Scripture, as properly interpreted through the methodology and lens of traditional moral theology, sexual activity is meant for a man and woman in a monogamous union. This, I realise, is a conclusion and not an argument. Nonetheless, it is also a foundation in its way. Human beings are made in the image of God. Whether you take Genesis 1-3 literally or not, this is one of the major takeaways from those chapters of the Bible, one of the things that they teach us about ourselves.

And a remarkable thing, as Fr John Behr points out (in a video I can’t find just now), is that God says, ‘Let us make man [adam/anthropos/homo – generic but singular, thus inexpressible in current English idiom] in our own image,’ and then makes — plural — male and female. Man and woman together, united, are the image of God. Our view of sex must be rooted in our view of humanity, our view of God, our view of marriage.

My friend Tim recently remarked that simply teaching the moral code won’t ever make our congregations moral.

He argued that instead we need to help people reorient their desires.

If your greatest eros is God (who is the actual most beautiful and most good being striven for in Plato’s Symposium, itself an exposition of eros), then you will be willing to live as he recommends, even if it is very hard. This is something that I think Dreher’s chapter on sex could have emphasised more.

Sex, food, material goods, family, community, work — all of these are good desires. Yet all should be subordinated to our desire for God on the metaphysical, ontological grounds not that God wants us to do so (for then He is merely a superhuman despot) but because God actually is worthy of such desire. Having rightly ordered any of these desires for God, we will no longer declare, ‘Confusion is sex,’ but realise that the eros that unites man and wife is good and is beautiful and is itself subordinate to something else so intimate that the Bible keeps expressing it in marital images.

In fact, this is a natural realisation of the western mystics. Most famously, St Teresa of Ávila, but also Julian of Norwich, use erotic language of metaphysical ecstasy. C.S. Lewis once had a mystical experience, and the thing he could best compare it to was sex.

Orient your eros to learn agape.

Sex will take care of itself.

Untaming God: How the Fathers can help save modern Protestants from small theology

A friend recently posted on Facebook the famous passage from C S Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:

“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…
“Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

I would argue that today’s Protestant, especially the evangelical variety (speaking from within that tradition) has a tendency to tame, to reduce God and the Christian world. God is made smaller and domesticated, taken from His place as the Holy One (and therefore Wholly Other) to my best friend or my genie or the Dude Who gets me into Heaven or whatev.

I realise that’s a crude caricature, and it certainly isn’t true of all evangelical Christians. But I do think we have a minimalising tendency that can be harmful at some levels. For example, the endless war with Rome over justification by faith alone through grace alone or the inner-Prot fights over predestination can obscure the fullness of the Christian life and the bigness of our untame God.

For example, I was recently involved in a discussion about early monasticism, and people were displeased with the attempts by the Desert Fathers and other ascetics to live in the Adamic state not only in terms of walking with God in the cool of the evening but also in terms of diet and relationship with the natural world (using some ideas from Peter Brown, Body and Society, which I’ve never read). Where, wondered the Scottish Presbyterian deacon (not anyone from my church, don’t worry), is Christ in this? Didn’t he take our sin away? Are they not aware that the price has been paid?

I proceeded to explain that the discussion of this-life holiness is not necessarily the same as next-life reward. Christ has paid the price, yes, but these men were concerned how we live as a result. And if Christ has removed sin, we can once again life in the state of Adam, trusting in God’s grace.

The tendency revealed here is the fear that whenever Christians start discussing how we should live in practical details, we will forget justification by faith for some reason. Theology and the Christian life has been reduced to a paltry caricature of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Cheap grace, rightly derided by Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship, is a short step away.

Another manifestation is the quest for bare minimum Christianity. By this I mean what is the least I need do for salvation? What is the least I need do for the Eucharist or Baptism to ‘count’? What is the simplest version of the Scriptures? While this can help strip away things like, say, papal indulgences and such, it can also lead to non-sacramental visions of Christianity, such as contemporary Salvation Army practices.

The Fathers can help. They’ve certainly helped me. While I’m not yet an expert on the entire patristic period of Christianity, I’ve read a lot of them and a lot about them, from the Apostolic Fathers to St John of Damascus (saint of the week here) and the Venerable Bede (saint of the week here), with focuses (foci?) on the early ascetics from St Antony to St Benedict and on the fifth century.

These readings have helped regrow my vision of Almighty God and the Christian life (alongside dabbling in mediaeval mystics, of course). The high-flying world of Trinitarian thought in the Cappadocians and its modern explication by Christopher A Hall in Learning Theology with the Church Fathers and by John Zizioulas in Being As Communion has helped me stand in awe before a God Who is so much bigger than ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ Christianity. Such theology can bring you to your knees and truly worship in Spirit and in truth — I would argue better than any Anglo-Catholic incense or low-church contemporary music ever can.

And for those who are rightly concerned about the intellectualising tendency that oft comes with high Trinitarian theology, the fifth-century has helped me enter into the messy bits, too. It all sounds so academic to say that Christ is one person with two natures, fully God and fully human, the God-man. But when you start seeing how this plays out in the sermons of Leo the Great (saint of the week here), you see that this means that God entered into the muck of our sordid lives, into a world of pain and sorrow, taking on the form of a slave, associating with the poorest of the poor. The ethical consequences of the two-natured Christ? Give to the poor and love abundantly; never despise those who share the same nature as the God you worship.

This is not minimalist theology but maximalist theology that takes hold of us and makes us ready to receive the God of Life Himself and be transformed as a result.

The ascetic fathers also help transform us. They remind us that we are called to pray continually, without ceasing. Evagrius Ponticus declares to us that contemplation of the Holy Trinity is the highest calling of the Christian; he also gives us some practical advice about how to fight temptation. We are given thoughts on our own thoughts and how to control them, how to assess our dreams, how to live day by day. We are shown a radical call to forsake this world and live for the next. We are called to help the poor. We are called to live humbly with our fellow brothers and sisters. We are called to radical obedience to the commands of our Lord Christ.

I’ve spoken before about why evangelicals do read the Fathers (here and here and here). This, I believe, is why they should — to rediscover the untame God, wild, powerful, unstoppable, majestic, glorious, awesome.

Aquinas vs modern historical-critical Biblical study

I recently polished off Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae: A Reader’s Guide by Stephen J Loughlin. In discussing Aquinas’ unfinished Tertia Pars and its discussion of Our Lord’s earthly life, Loughlin says:

The second section deals with the course of His life while in the world (Questions 40-45), treating of the manner of His life, His temptation in the desert, the manner of and questions related to His teaching, the mircales He worked considered both generally and specifically, and lastly His transfiguration. Kerr notes the elementary nature of these descriptions, particularly in light of ‘modern historical-critical reconstructions of the life of the man who figures in the Gospels,’ and that this section of the Summa is of very limited interest to theologians today. (291)

This is all Questions 40-45 of the Tertia Pars get in Loughlin’s very fine introduction to Aquinas. His treatment of Aquinas’ account of creation and the order of the world is similar — science has proven Thomas wrong on this point, so he’s not much use to us anymore.

I disagree wholeheartedly with this approach. Having read over Questions 40-45, I think they are important for our understanding of Aquinas and of a theological reading of Scripture. With the exception of N T Wright up at St Andrews and, at times, Larry Hurtado in Edinburgh, very rarely do ‘modern historical-critical reconstructions of the life of the man who figures in the Gospels’ and other products of modern historical-critical Biblical Studies give us a theologically-informed or theology-informing reading of the life of Christ.

Thomas Aquinas does that. Therefore, sparse perhaps as his reading of Christ’s life is, lacking as it certainly is in many details of life in the first-century Eastern Mediterranean, the theological way of reading Scripture demonstrated here is of interest to the modern student of theology, who can take Aquinas and supplement his understand of Jesus and first-century Judaism and thereby produce a fuller account.

Furthermore, historical theology is not always about what is most useful for ‘today’. It is about what was believed and discussed then. A good introduction should make the odd bits or superseded bits of an ancient philosophical or theological text interesting to a modern reader, whose understanding of astronomy or of particular historical details may differ from that of the author at hand. This is what C S Lewis’ superlative work The Discarded Image does with the mediaeval worldview at large.

While Loughlin, by and large, makes Aquinas’ major and most influential arguments accessible to a contemporary audience, this is one moment where he fails at the task of producing a helpful introduction. Nonetheless, this book is recommended to anyone interested in grappling with the monstrously large task of reading the Summa Theologiae.

For a full review of this book and its many merits, I refer you to The Medieval Review.

Brief Thoughts on the Green Man

Green Man, Rosslyn Chapel

If you look for the Green Man on the internet (as with popular books), most people you will find who discuss this allegedly mythological figure will tie connections between High and Late Mediaeval grotesques and some Imperial Roman art, which is fair enough, and then often run off telling you about vaguely similar things in other cultures and then trying to convince you that Bacchus is Okeanos is the Green Man. It’s all a bit breathless and doesn’t really work.

One can reasonably demonstrate that the visual motif in Roman art is about the same thing we’re getting on mediaeval cathedrals. No dispute there. The links with Bacchus and Okeanos, however, are tenuous at best.

However, to say that a motif from pagan art is because the sculptors themselves were still pagans is a bit silly. All sorts of magnificent, wonderful, bizarre things are going on in mediaeval churches. These are the things that lurk about in the edges of the consciousness of the human mind. Things go bump in the night. Man is a creature of Earth, even if he can look to the heavens. We are physically of the same stuff as everything else. And so things make their way onto church walls and pillars and roofs, not only Green Men but other, stranger figures.

We like to parse the world of wonder and mystery in our Enlightenment world. And so there is nature and, perhaps, super-nature. But living with the inheritance of the thought-purges of the Renaissance and Reformation, super-nature is God and his angels, and — depending your mood — the devil and his minions. Full stop.

That mediaeval people may have believed in other facets of the numinous world makes them no less Christian than we. It means that their universe was larger in many ways. Indeed, it is not the Green Men who make you pause and question the level of Christian commitment held by the mediaeval world so much as the Platonic worldview so many held!

However, for me, the idea of a visual motif from the pagan world surviving into the Middle Ages cannot mean that these people were half-Christianised pagans (although some/many of them likely were). This is partly because Peter Brown has aptly and amply demonstrated that the Cult of the Saints is not a paganised version of Christianity, even when it so strikingly resembles paganism (see The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity).

Green Man, York Minster (not my photo, it was blurry!)

A second reason is the fact that the mythology neo-pagan websites attach to the Green Man is extrapolated entirely from the architecture itself. We know nothing of what a stonemason in 13th-century York was thinking when he carved a Green Man. All we have is a visual motif that bears a resemblance to a Roman pagan visual motif. To tie it in to Druids and pre-Christian Germanic religion and specific ideas about humanity’s relationship to nature — we cannot go this far. The evidence is unable to bring us to these conclusions, because the Classical framework wherein our first properly attested Green Men arise gives us no such help and is so philosophically plural that there is no single Graeco-Roman pagan vision of humanity’s relationship to nature.

Goddess Victory, Ephesus

A third reason why the Green Man does not proclaim to me that these people were still pagans who worshipped whatever it is that pagans worshipped is the fact that we know full well that an angel is an angel, and not the goddess Victoria (Nike) or Cupid. Yet more than enough art shows angels who resemble one or the other. Motifs from pagan art carry over into Christian art to a very large degree; this is the classical inheritance of the mediaeval world. It comes along with allegorical readings of texts, Ptolemaic astronomy, dactylic hexameter, and Ciceronian rhetoric. For a good, readable treatment of the mediaeval and Renaissance use of classical pagan literary and philosophical ideas, read C S Lewis’ The Discarded Image.

Third, Green Men appear in churches. Mediaeval piety as represented by illuminated manuscripts, the rest of church architecture, Books of Hours, Breviaries, the Cult of the Saints, the Cult of the Cross, the Cult of the Virgin, Corpus Christi festivals, mystery and miracle plays, devotional poetry, and eucharistic devotion shows me people who have a strong Classical inheritance, sometimes (even among the ‘elites’) un-Christian and pagan, but always overlaid and refashioned and reinterpreted in light of the Christian message and Christian gospel.

Green Men tell me nothing of survivals of pagan piety into the Middle Ages. And they tell me nothing of ancient pagan beliefs about nature. For that, I will turn to Lucretius or Marcus Aurelius or Plato or Aristotle. They do, however, tell me of the survival of pagan artistic motifs of one form or another through the Middle Ages. And this I already knew.

One final thought: perhaps these modern re-imaginings lie in the false dichotomy forged between popular religion and the elites by David Hume. Peter Brown deals with this is in his opening chapters ofThe Cult of the Saints. Perhaps that is precisely the problem. We see the monks as cut off from these barbarians who, through forced, mass conversions never actually abandoned their old religions. In some ways, that is a story Northern Europe tells. However, this is not the story of the Mediterranean in Late Antiquity, the place where our Green Men have their best earliest attestation.

So much for now. I think we should re-think the Green Man as a pagan visual motif surviving in a Christian setting. This may give us a thoroughly different narrative.