Thursday, July 30, 2020

The Provincial

The family may fairly be considered, one would think, an ultimate human institution.

Heretics, Gilbert K. Chesterton (eBook)

Not only, as some would say, because it is “peaceful, pleasant, and at one,” but because it is often quite the opposite.  Unlike with our friends and acquaintances, with family we don’t get to choose.  We think of the cosmopolitan, travelling to four corners of the world, choosing what he does, who he sees, with whom he spends time, how he spends time.  The provincial has much of this chosen for him:

The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us.

In a big society, we can form cliques.  We can choose, and the field from which we can choose is as large as we make our circle – even as large as the entire world, for those whose reach is almost unlimited.  Hence, the big society forms narrowness.  Those who live in a big society are free to associate with – or not associate with – whomever they choose.  Mostly, people just like them.

If we were to-morrow morning snowed up in the street in which we live, we should step suddenly into a much larger and much wilder world than we have ever known.

Our neighbors.  Yet this is the world from which the modern has decided to escape.  He invents modern culture and modern imperialism; he goes off on wild adventures.  He is fleeing from his street, not, as he claims, because it is too dull, but because it is too interesting.

We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour.

We are not told to find random people to love; we are told to love our neighbor.  We don’t get to choose our neighbor; he is chosen for us.  We are told to love him because he is there, right next to us, without our doing or choosing. 

Instead, the modern goes to the four corners, thinking that he is finding people much different than himself.  Instead, he is finding others who are quite like him – who just happen to speak a different primary language.

…if what he wants is people different from himself, he had much better stop at home and discuss religion with the housemaid. …if he wants to conquer something fundamentally and symbolically hostile and also very strong, he had much better remain where he is and have a row with the rector.

So, returning to the family.  It is to be commended for precisely this reason – the same reason that the institution of the nation or the city are to be commended: they all force him to contend, not with something outside, but something inside.  Do unto others – not others of your own choosing, but others chosen for you.  If that doesn’t force you to contend with your inside, nothing will.

Aunt Elizabeth is unreasonable, like mankind. Papa is excitable, like mankind Our youngest brother is mischievous, like mankind. Grandpapa is stupid, like the world; he is old, like the world.

Step out of this, and you step into a narrower world.  The cosmopolitan is not broadening his horizons, he is limiting them; he is not growing, he is shrinking.  He is suffering a delusion. 

The best way that a man could test his readiness to encounter the common variety of mankind would be to climb down a chimney into any house at random, and get on as well as possible with the people inside. And that is essentially what each one of us did on the day that he was born.

And the day our children were born, and the day we moved to a new neighborhood, or our new neighbors moved in.  It is romantic because it is random, because it is arbitrary.  Life can only be a story if a great portion of it is “settled for us without our permission.”  Would we want the author to come out on stage and ask us to tell him how the next act should go?  Does that make a story?

A man has control over many things in his life; he has control over enough things to be the hero of a novel. But if he had control over everything, there would be so much hero that there would be no novel.

It would be easy to point to Jesus here.  Instead, I will point to one of the hundreds of examples that man invented as a poor facsimile: Tony Stark wasn’t a hero because of what he could control; he was a hero because of what he could not control.

The thing which keeps life romantic and full of fiery possibilities is the existence of these great plain limitations which force all of us to meet the things we do not like or do not expect.

The mistake of the moderns, as Chesterton puts it, is to believe that life is at its most romantic in a complete state of liberty.  They are after a world of no limitations.

They say they wish to be, as strong as the universe, but they really wish the whole universe as weak as themselves.


To really feel the joy in life

You must suffer through the pain

Until you struggle through the dark

You'll never know that you're alive

-          Illumination Theory, Dream Theater

You can fight

Without ever winning

But never ever win

Without a fight

-          Resist, Rush

Or you can make the universe as weak as you are.  But from which type of man will the foundations of liberty be built?  The weak cosmopolitan, or the strong provincial?

Monday, July 27, 2020

The Old “New Atheists”

Of the New Paganism (or neo-Paganism) …there is no necessity to take any very grave account, except as a thing which left behind it incomparable exercises in the English language.

Heretics, Gilbert K. Chesterton (eBook)

Chesterton wrote these words more than 100 years ago.  They are equally applicable to those known as new atheists today.  We no longer have to take them into account either.  The thing that is replacing Christianity is not a void – as the new atheists dream – but a new religion, one that includes original sin but without the possibility of forgiveness.

The term "pagan" is continually used in fiction and light literature as meaning a man without any religion, whereas a pagan was generally a man with about half a dozen.

The new version, the new atheists, are after a religion that is not a religion; they are after inventing “good,” although the best they can do is agree on what is bad (usually devolving into nothing more than pointing to Hitler; hence, everything short of Hitler is OK, or, at least, not to be condemned).  They want the Christian ethic, just without the Christianity.  They ignore Nietzsche’s warning.

He suggests that the Pagan ideal will be the ultimate good of man; but if that is so, we must at least ask with more curiosity than he allows for, why it was that man actually found his ultimate good on earth under the stars, and threw it away again.

In his magnum opus, From Dawn to Decadence, Jacques Barzun would write of G. K. Chesterton that he, along with Hilaire Belloc, was one of the few who understood what was happening while it was happening: Western man was throwing away his ultimate good.  Barzun would call this the Great Switch, when what we know as Classical Liberalism – with still some grounding in Christianity – transformed into its modern incarnation.

Chesterton notes that there is only one thing in our world that knows anything of paganism – and it isn’t the neo-pagans or the new atheists: it is Christianity.  The ancient hymns and dances of Europe, the festivals of Rome, a “festoon of flowers at Easter or a string of sausages at Christmas.”  All have their roots in ancient paganism.

Everything else in the modern world is of Christian origin, even everything that seems most anti-Christian. The French Revolution is of Christian origin. The newspaper is of Christian origin. The anarchists are of Christian origin. Physical science is of Christian origin. The attack on Christianity is of Christian origin.

We have been fighting a Christian civil war since the eighteenth century, if not the sixteenth.  At least in the sixteenth century, each of the combatants believed he was acting on a Christian basis; since the eighteenth, half of the combatants are too ignorant of history to realize this, while most of the other half are too secular to act on what they claim to believe.

Chesterton points to the Seven Virtues, and finding here the real difference between Paganism and Christianity; this difference is to be seen in the difference of the four Natural Virtues and the three Theological Virtues, or Virtues of Grace as he calls these:

The pagan, or rational, virtues are such things as justice and temperance, and Christianity has adopted them. The three mystical virtues which Christianity has not adopted, but invented, are faith, hope, and charity.

He notes, of these, two facts: first, the pagan virtues are sad virtues and the Christian virtues are gay and exuberant; second, the pagan virtues are reasonable, while the Christian virtues are as unreasonable as can be.  He clarifies “unreasonable” to mean that these offer a paradox.  To expand, he offers:

Justice consists in finding out a certain thing due to a certain man and giving it to him. Temperance consists in finding out the proper limit of a particular indulgence and adhering to that.

This is quite reasonable.

But charity means pardoning what is unpardonable, or it is no virtue at all. Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all. And faith means believing the incredible, or it is no virtue at all.

And this is all quite unreasonable to modern man.  But Chesterton offers that the development of these three virtues was necessary because, despite being paradoxical, they were practical:

The great psychological discovery of Paganism, which turned it into Christianity, can be expressed with some accuracy in one phrase. The pagan set out, with admirable sense, to enjoy himself. By the end of his civilization he had discovered that a man cannot enjoy himself and continue to enjoy anything else.

Which also describes the phase that we are passing through today.  We have the material means to satisfy virtually every lust; we are discovering that lust is an unquenchable desire.  Hence, we lose meaning:

Ecclesiastes 1: 2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!”

says the Teacher.

“Utterly meaningless!

Everything is meaningless.”

3 What do people gain from all their labors

at which they toil under the sun?

To find the cure for this, Chesterton returns to the necessity of humility:

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Have We Come Full Circle?

Running forward

Falling back

Spinning round and round

Looking outward

Reaching in

Scream without a sound


Leaning over

Crawling up

Stumbling all around

Losing my place

Only to find I've come full circle

-          Octavarium, Dream Theater

The Question

A friend posed this series of questions.

·         Materialism without Capitalism?

·         Capitalism without the West?

·         The West without Christendom?

·         Christendom without Christianity?

·         Christianity without Christians?

·         Christians without Christ (i.e. "spiritual but not religious")?

How connected are these?  Is it necessary that each is preceded by the one before?  I don’t know.  And I don’t know if I will know any better by the time I finish this post.  But scratching the surface is a good start.

Considering these questions, the first thing that strikes me is that these is a string through history connecting these; one did follow the other in the history of the West.  Christ came before Christians, Christians came before Christianity, etc.

While it is so that one followed the other, I guess the question is: must one had to have preceded the other.  It is easy to answer “yes” for each specific question; how could there be Christians without Christ, Christianity without Christians, etc.?

But does this suggest that Capitalism (let alone, Materialism) could not come to exist without Christ?  I am not familiar with a well-developed capitalism coming organically out of any other tradition (whereas Materialism has been built on many foundations).  So, history, at least, presents a hurdle to the possibility – or probability.

Two clarifications: I will define capitalism as respect for property and life.  This seems to me the most fundamental necessity.  Second, consider that this is a very rough work-in-progress; I look forward to feedback, to help shape my views and deal with these questions in a more substantive manner.

The Foundation

I guess I will start with a couple of concepts, concepts that are unique (as far as I know) to Christianity.  Something is telling me that I must start with these.

Genesis 1: 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

All men and all women are made in the image of God.  This suggests, rather strongly, a proper means of respecting the dignity of each individual.  It does not suggest equality – certainly not in the modern sense of the term.  But if I am to treat others honestly – a necessary pre-condition for capitalism to form – it helps to keep in mind that all men and women are made in God’s image.

John 1: 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Jesus was God and the Son of God.

Hebrews 10: 10 By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

We don’t have to keep finding a scapegoat.  For shorthand, God sacrificed Himself.  There is no higher sacrifice we can offer.

Ephesians1: 7 In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace

There is no sin too large that His sacrifice cannot forgive.  (Yes, I know there is one – but examining this is beyond the scope of this blog and outside of the questions raised.)

What does all of this have to do with the questions raised?  I don’t know if we get to capitalism without Christ.  (I will examine the last step – materialism – shortly.)

The Caveat

It should be noted: I included no verses touching on the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection.  Clearly, there is no Christianity without these.  Christ is not Christ without these.  But are these necessary for Capitalism?

I don’t think so.  I think the argument made above – and on the concepts identified above – are sufficient.  That these (as a group) are found only in Christianity remains true, and necessary for Capitalism.  But I cannot connect the Virgin Birth or Resurrection to Capitalism. 

Could Jesus have come to earth in another way?  I don’t see why not, but this is beyond my theological depth.  Did He have to be Resurrected for His sacrifice to count?  Again, I don’t see why; but this, too, is beyond my theological depth.

However, it seems to me that for Christianity to be sustained, a sufficient portion of the population must buy into these claims.  Otherwise, what is Jesus but a failed revolutionary?  So…maybe even these are necessary for Capitalism – but for now I am willing to suggest only that a sufficient portion of the population holds onto the Virgin Birth and Resurrection, else Christianity cannot be sustained (from where we would gain hope – another necessity of capitalism).

As I think about it, how do we get capitalism without consideration for the future – a future beyond our lives?  Again, this may not require Christianity, but it doesn’t hurt.

The Connections

So, what do I take from these verses?  If all men and all women are not made in the image of God, why would those not so blessed be afforded any consideration in life or property?  A majority of those under Greek or Roman rule were slaves; certainly, something well below the status of citizen.  They were not so blessed in the time of the Greeks or Romans; they were not anywhere else in history either.

Sure, I know the objections: “slavery existed in the Christian West until the nineteenth century!”  Slavery existed everywhere until the nineteenth century – and it continues in many parts of the world today.  It was only in the Christian West where the active role of Christians brought this practice to an end. 

As I have asked before: do we expect God to force several thousand years of cultural change on us in a day?  This is what is being forced on us today, and it never goes very well.  It is what was forced by Lenin, Stalin and Mao – and that didn’t go well either.

Next, if we are not afforded the understanding that we are blessed with a sacrifice that cannot be surpassed, that can cleanse all transgressions no matter how large, how can we live in peace with one another – the peace necessary for property to be accumulated and for trade to flourish?  We see today that we cannot.  There is no sacrifice large enough to satisfy today’s grievances.

Am I stretching this?  Maybe.  But where else in history do we find the concepts as presented in Christianity (depicted by the verses above) and capitalism (rights in life and property) developing organically?  I haven’t found another example.

The Diversity

This does not mean that everywhere Christianity went, capitalism followed.  We know it did not.  There was something about the West that was different.  Here, Germanic tribes brought their culture and tradition into the mix.  Which raises an interesting contrast.

Aryan tribes from the southern Russian steppes went both east and west in the third millennium BC.  To the west, Greece, Scandinavia, Italy, and Germany.  To the east, India.  They brought with them a culture.  Karen Armstrong states that “Aryan” was not a racial term, but as “assertion of pride,” something like “noble” or “honorable.”

These tribes had some characteristics that we might consider “Christian.”  We can also see in these characteristics some necessary conditions for capitalism: binding agreements were made, sealed by solemn oath; characteristics of loyalty, truth, and respect; the spoken word was like a god; once uttered, a vow was eternally binding.

So, where am I headed?  In the East, these Aryan characteristics did not develop into anything approaching capitalism – rights in property and life.  In the West, they did.  I can think of two significantly meaningful differences, one or both of which could be factors: first, the influence of the Greeks, second, the influence of Christ.

As for the Greeks…not all men were considered as created in God’s image.  So, despite all of the wonderful contributions given us by Greek thought, toss them out for rights in property and life.  That leaves us Christ, for the reasons above.

To continue with this point: why not the Christian East, and why only the Christian West?  I imagine here again I can point to the Germanic (Aryan) tribes.  Byzantium took with them the Greek, but they did not have the German.  The culture of the region was not similarly influenced – albeit I have read little of this history.

The Material

So, to make a long story short, I don’t think we get to capitalism without Christ.  But what of the last step, materialism?  It strikes me as a desire to hold on to capitalism (or, in the Marxist case, the fruits of capitalism, being production) without the foundation on which it was built. 

Do we get to materialism without capitalism?  Perhaps not.  Capitalism gives us the luxury of ignoring the transcendent; it affords us a means to reduce suffering; it focuses us on goods in this world, as it is deemed the only world.  So, maybe the answer here also is yes – the luxury of materialism is possible only because of the abundance of capitalism.


Or the abundance of slaves.  Materialism as we know it is a recent idea with roots in the Renaissance, but taking full root in the Enlightenment.  It is best (and worst) exemplified in Marxism.  But there was the idea of materialism long before Christ – in ancient Greece and in India.  I am wondering if this means we have come full circle; I am also wondering if it means the cycle might repeat. 

Will the cycle start with Christ, or with an anti-Christ?  I don’t mean in an apocalyptic, Armageddon sort of way.  I mean in terms of the direction our culture might take.

I don’t know.  But either way, I am afraid that we will have to first walk through the valley of the shadow of death.