Sunday, 22 March 2009

Friday, 20 March 2009

Quote of the day: dogmatism

"If it comes to human testimony, there is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural. If you reject it, you can only mean one of two things. You reject the peasant's story about the ghost either because the man is a peasant or because the story is a ghost story. That is, you either deny the main principle of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism - the abstract impossibility of miracle. You have a perfect right to do so; but in that case you are the dogmatist. It is we Christians who accept all actual evidence - it is you rationalists who refuse actual evidence being constrained to do so by your creed."

- G K Chesterton, Authority and the Adventurer, in Orthodoxy.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Quote of the day: destroying humanity for the want of God

"I know a man who has such a passion for proving that he will have no personal existence after death that he falls back on the position that he has no personal existence now. He invokes Buddhism and says that all souls fade into each other; in order to prove that he cannot go to Heaven, he proves that he cannot go to Hartle-pool. I have known people who protested against religious education with arguments against any education, saying that the child's mind must grow freely or that the old must not teach the young. I have known people who showed that there could be no divine judgement, by showing that there can be no human judgement, even for practical purposes. ...

We do not admire, we hardly excuse, the fanatic who wrecks this world for love of the other. But what are we to say of the fanatic who wrecks this world out of hatred of the other? He sacrifices the very existence of humanity to the non-existence of God. He offers his victims not to the altar, but merely to assert the idleness of the altar and the emptiness of the throne. He is ready to ruin even that primary ethic by which all things live, for his strange and eternal vengeance upon someone who never lived at all.

"And yet the thing hangs in the heavens unhurt. Its opponents only succeed in destroying all that they themselves justly hold dear. ...

"The secularists have not wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them. The Titans did not scale Heaven; but they laid waste the world."
- G K Chesterton, The Romance of Orthodoxy, in Orthodoxy.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Quote of the day: God Himself is a society

"The complex God of the Athanasian Creed may be an enigma for the intellect; but He is far less likely to gather the mystery and cruelty of a Sultan than the lonely god of Omar or Mahomet. The god who is a mere awful unity is not only a king but an Eastern king. ... For to us Trinitarians (if I may say it with reverence) — to us God Himself is a society. It is indeed a fathomless mystery of theology, and even if I were theologian enough to deal with it directly, it would not be relevant to do so here. Suffice it to say here that this triple enigma is as comforting as wine and open as an English fireside; that this thing that bewilders the intellect utterly quiets the heart: but out of the desert, from the dry places and the dreadful suns, come the cruel children of the lonely God; the real Unitarians who with scimitar in hand have laid waste the world. For it is not well for God to be alone."
- G K Chesterton, The Romance of Orthodoxy, in Orthodoxy.
For a less polemical but still engaging take, have a listen to theologynetwork's first tabletalk on Islam and God as Trinity.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Missing the point on St Patrick's Day

As I sipped my potato, leek and carrot soup*, I pondered the problem with St Patrick's Day.

It could be just the issue with Rome naming 'patron saints' like national pagan deities.

It could be the perversity that Patrick gave his life to tell the Irish of the One who'd given His life to call them out into a holy nation: and it is generally celebrated that by getting drunk and distinctly unholy.

But more, I think, it is the lesson in completely missing the point: that while Patrick, non-Irish, became Irish to the Irish in order that he might win them for Christ, call them into His new nation, new people, we spend the day celebrating Irishness. Patrick left his own shores to call the Irish to Christ, while now, those on other shores forget Christ and just want to be Irish for the day. Missing the point is rather serious in this case: it's missing Christ.

* Well, have you ever tried making red, white and blue food? Not advisable. Anyway, I hasten to add that I felt like eating soup for lunch, and only realised after cooking it that it was thus coloured.

Patrick, c. AD 450: the message

So Patrick the man lived a mission to the Irish - but what was his message? In his own words, then:
For there is no other God, nor ever was before, nor shall be hereafter, but God the Father, unbegotten and without beginning, in whom all things began, whose are all things, as we have been taught; and his son Jesus Christ, who manifestly always existed with the Father, before the beginning of time in the spirit with the Father, indescribably begotten before all things, and all things visible and invisible were made by him. He was made man, conquered death and was received into Heaven, to the Father who gave him all power over every name in Heaven and on Earth and in Hell, so that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and God, in whom we believe. And we look to his imminent coming again, the judge of the living and the dead, who will render to each according to his deeds. And he poured out his Holy Spirit on us in abundance, the gift and pledge of immortality, which makes the believers and the obedient into sons of God and co-heirs of Christ who is revealed, and we worship one God in the Trinity of holy name.

He himself said through the prophet: 'Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.' And again: 'It is right to reveal and publish abroad the works of God.'
Read the rest of the Confessio.

Patrick, c. AD 450: the mission

Of Patrick the man we know what he told us in his Confessio, but what of his mission? What would make him brave those who'd held him a slave, those who were in the thrall of the druids, who offered human sacrifices, who lived in fear of spirits? What would make him live among those who were too barbarous for the Romans to have ventured near? Let's not guess - though clearly, it was nothing to do with Guiness, and little to do with shamrocks and snakes. Let him explain in his own words, from AD 450:
I give untiring thanks to God who kept me faithful in the day of my temptation, so that today I may confidently over my soul as a living sacrifice for Christ my Lord; who am I, Lord? or, rather, what is my calling? that you appeared to me in so great a divine quality, so that today among the barbarians I might constantly exalt and magnify your name in whatever place I should be, and not only in good fortune, but even in affliction?

So that whatever befalls me, be it good or bad, I should accept it equally, and give thanks always to God who revealed to me that I might trust in him, implicitly and forever, and who will encourage me so that, ignorant, and in the last days, I may dare to undertake so devout and so wonderful a work; so that I might imitate one of those whom, once, long ago, the Lord already pre-ordained to be heralds of his Gospel to witness to all peoples to the ends of the earth. So are we seeing, and so it is fulfilled; behold, we are witnesses because the Gospel has been preached as far as the places beyond which no man lives.

I wish to wait then for his promise which is never unfulfilled, just as it is promised in the Gospel: 'Many shall come from east and west and shall sit at table with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.' Just as we believe that believers will come from all the world.

So for that reason one should, in fact, fish well and diligently, just as the Lord foretells and teaches, saying, 'Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,' and again through the prophets: 'Behold, I am sending forth many fishers and hunters, says the Lord,' et cetera. So it behoves us to spread our nets, that a vast multitude and throng might be caught for God, and so there might be clergy everywhere who baptized and exhorted a needy and desirous people. Just as the Lord says in the Gospel, admonishing and instructing: 'Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always to the end of time.' And again he says: 'Go forth into the world and preach the Gospel to all creation. He who believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he who does not believe shall be condemned.' And again: 'This Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached throughout the whole world as a witness to all nations; and then the end of the world shall come.' And likewise the Lord foretells through the prophet: 'And it shall come to pass in the last days (sayeth the Lord) that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams; yea, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days I will pour out my Spirit and they shall prophesy.' And in Hosea he says: 'Those who are not my people I will call my people, and those not beloved I will call my beloved, and in the very place where it was said to them, You are not my people, they will be called 'Sons of the living God'.
So, how is it that in Ireland, where they never had any knowledge of God but, always, until now, cherished idols and unclean things,they are lately become a people of the Lord, and are called children of God...


Therefore may it never befall me to be separated by my God from his people whom he has won in this most remote land. I pray God that he gives me perseverance, and that he will deign that I should be a faithful witness for his sake right up to the time of my passing.
What is this 'Gospel' of which he speaks? In a far corner of the world - beyond the edge of civilisation - from 1600 years ago, Patrick tells us - the message.

Patrick, c. AD 450: the man

Today I praise our God for the testimony of Patrick, missionary to Ireland. In fact, he wasn't much of a missionary in church terms, as his church and bishops refused to 'send' him: rather, they tried to dissuade him from wasting his life among the pagan barbarians in Ireland who had already kept him as a slave for several years as a teenager. So Patrick, in Ireland years later, wrote his defence: his Confessio, to defend his ministry against accusation, and thus protect his people from thinking little of the God he proclaimed. Thus we have a marvellous record of his life and ministry, from c. AD 450:
I, Patrick, a sinner, a most simple countryman, the least of all the faithful and most contemptible to many, had for father the deacon Calpurnius, son of the late Potitus, a priest, of the settlement of Bannavem Taburniae; he had a small villa nearby where I was taken captive. I was at that time about sixteen years of age. I did not, indeed, know the true God; and I was taken into captivity in Ireland with many thousands of people, according to our desserts, for quite drawn away from God, we did not keep his precepts, nor were we obedient to our priests who used to remind us of our salvation. And the Lord brought down on us the fury of his being and scattered us among many nations, even to the ends of the earth, where I, in my smallness, am now to be found among foreigners.

And there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance. And he watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son.

Therefore, indeed, I cannot keep silent, nor would it be proper, so many favours and graces has the Lord deigned to bestow on me in the land of my captivity. For after chastisement from God, and recognizing him, our way to repay him is to exalt him and confess his wonders before every nation under heaven.
He writes almost Psalm-like of how God has brought him up from the pit and now he shall declare a new song:
I am, then, first of all, country-fied, an exile, evidently unlearned, one who is not able to see into the future, but I know for certain, that before I was humbled I was like a stone lying in deep mire, and he that is mighty came and in his mercy raised me up and, indeed, lifted me high up and placed me on top of the wall. And from there I ought to shout out in gratitude to the Lord for his great favours in this world and for ever, that the mind of man cannot measure. [...]

According, therefore, to the measure of one's faith in the Trinity, one should proceed without holding back from danger to make known the gift of God and everlasting consolation, to spread God's name everywhere with confidence and without fear, in order to leave behind, after my death, foundations for my brethren and sons whom I baptized in the Lord in so many thousands.

"Without holding back from danger"? What danger? What would motivate him to that, with no human support from family, friends or church? Patrick, c. AD450: the mission.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Grace for perversity

I'd just done a study with one of my CUs, a study on Mark 14 & 15 - our salvation due to no good in ourselves, but all in our substitute, our Lamb's life poured out for us, our King dying on behalf of us rebels.

And I was praying as I walked to the train, pleading for the university that God would indeed choose the weak of this world, to shame the strong; that He would show that He is working, not just our natural power. If witness in an established, academic university is strong, it's only because of His doing; but when a university with less academic students, poorer students, more local students - when it stays weak, it looks like it depends on our strength and not the power of the gospel. So I was praying for God to take the glory - to use the weak, because all recognition would go to His Son, not us.

All recognition to His Son, and not to us.

The very next minute I found myself thinking, "At least CU x are doing well. At least in 2.5 years I've done that much - I've got them doing such & such evangelism, and they've had a mission week for the first time in x years - and a brilliant one at that - they're about to do Y, I've helped them to a point where they're doing Z,..." Highly embarassing to say aloud, and takes a while, but I was caught thinking it in a split second. And that a second after praying that God would work so that all recognition would go to His Son, not to us.
"Lord, thank you for salvation in Christ alone, declared righteous by his righteousness credited to me, not by anything in me. So Lord, show that you're the One working, to get all glory. ... PS. At least I can justify myself in this that I've done, Lord."

How perverse and ugly, how deceitful my heart is, that while praying for God's mercy to His glory, I can take that mercy and use it to steal glory for myself. It is as if Barabbas, once freed because of the substitution of Christ, were to say, "Well after all, I was sometimes quite kind to animals." Irrelevant - you were under sentence of death and someone else died in your place! You are free, and it had and has nothing to do with any good in you. Praise God. Your justification, sanctification and redemption are all Christ. My boast is all Christ. My hope is all Christ. For such a perverse, glory-thieving person as me, what grace!

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Quote of the day: Liberally free?

Chesterton got there before me - what we noticed in the "Free" universities in Belgium, which promote "freethinking", GKC made comment on in Orthodoxy:
"In actual modern Europe a freethinker does not mean a man who thinks for himself. It means a man who, having thought for himself, has come to one particular class of conclusions, the material origin of phenomena, the impossibility of miracles, the improbability of personal immortality and so on. And none of these ideas are particularly liberal. Nay, indeed almost all of these ideas are definitely illiberal...

"The man of the nineteenth century did not disbelieve in the Resurrection because his liberal Christianity allowed him to doubt it. He disbelieved in it because his very strict materialism did not allow him to believe in it. ... The doubts of the agnostic were only the dogmas of the monist."
As I advertised for a GBU event years ago:

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

The headless monster (or our primary loyalty)

As you could tell from previous posts, I've been enjoying G.K.Chesterton's Orthodoxy. Yet as I've progressed through it, and especially in the chapter, "The Flag of the World," it has struck me increasingly as horribly man-centred. He writes with such power and wit that it's hard not to be carried along by it - but he seems to have Man as supreme. He speaks of how we must have a "primary loyalty to life" (or to 'the universe') - to love it enough to feel its strangeness and yet set about changing it. He speaks of suicides as insulting the creation by 'refusing to live for its sake.' This is true, but not ultimate: we insult God by refusing to live for Him!

But that is idolatry and adultery. We are first to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and then men as we love ourselves: but this feels like we are forgetting the Creator and loving His creation primarily, instead.

So much of what Chesterton says is true, but it falls short. He speaks of the accomplishments of the Church, as if of Christ - but without reference to Him. Now we would say, rightly, that one cannot speak of the Bride of Christ without implicating Him - but what a monstrous thing to speak of a body without its head, a bride always without her bridegroom. "Can the lion lie down with the lamb and still retain his royal ferocity? That is the problem the Church attempted; that is the miracle she achieved." How dare one speak of this as a work of the Church, rather than a glory of God in Christ?

GKC speaks strikingly of the eternal nature of truth, and the importance of doctrinal correctness: helpful in an age which prefers fashion in doctrine, and would rather fluffy feeling than theological precision. But the goal he places before us is human happiness: "...if some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness." This is true, but it falls short: our ultimate goal in doctrine is not as a means to the end of human happiness, but faithfulness to the glory of the one true God, who has revealed Himself to us in the one who is Truth, Christ!

Chesterton lambastes selfish egoism, but he doesn't go far enough. He speaks of Christianity, but not of Christ. When he is at his most sparkling, there is a dullness brought by this, that he speaks of Christianity over Christ, Church over Christ, and Man's happiness over God's glory.
Of all horrible religions, the most horrible is the worship of the god within. ... Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards - to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain.
So true, yet not consistent with the rest, where he merely turns our attention from 'the light within' to Man as a whole, rather than to God. It is not then surprising that earlier in the work he explains how he came up with his own, natural, theology, and then found that it "had been discovered before, by Christianity." But true Christianity is no man-made philosophy - such a thing does tend to have Man as its goal, with God in service. Christ came to reveal God - quite another dynamic.

Perhaps in the final few chapters (for I have committed the cardinal error of critiquing a book before I've finished reading it) he will correct this blasphemous tendency. But for now, let me leave you with Calvin's main contention with Cardinal Sadolet, who was trying to persuade Genevans back into the fold of Rome:
It is not very sound theology to confine a man's thoughts so much to himself, and not to set before him, as the prime motive of his existence, zeal to illustrate the glory of God. For we are born first of all for God, and not for ourselves. As all things flowed from him, and subsist in him, so, says Paul, (Romans 11:36,) they ought to be referred to him. I acknowledge, indeed, that the Lord, the better to recommend the glory of his name to men, has tempered zeal for the promotion and extension of it, by uniting it indissolubly with our salvation. But since he has taught that this zeal ought to exceed all thought and care for our own good and advantage, and since natural equity also teaches that God does not receive what is his own, unless he is preferred to all things, it certainly is the part of a Christian man to ascend higher than merely to seek and secure the salvation of his own soul.

I am persuaded, therefore, that there is no man imbued with true piety, who will not consider as insipid that [Sadolet's] long and labored exhortation to zeal for heavenly life, a zeal which keeps a man entirely devoted to himself, and does not, even by one expression, arouse him to sanctify the name of God. But I readily agree with you that, after this sanctification, we ought not to propose to ourselves any other object in life than to hasten towards that high calling; for God has set it before us as the constant aim of all our thoughts, and words, and actions. And, indeed, there is nothing in which man excels the lower animals, unless it be his spiritual communion with God in the hope of a blessed eternity.
(Jean Chauvin,
Response to Sadolet, 1539.)

Monday, 2 March 2009

Quote of the day: La revolution est morte

Vive la revolution! La revolution est morte.

Not quite the same way round as The King is dead: Long live the King! But Chesterton suggests that we no longer have grounds on which to revolutionise anything. This certainly would explain the apathy on university campuses - only those with a systematic conviction or a lifestyle grudge ever do anything (which is why I'm sadly not a rash of secularist societies, despite Dawkins' encouragement). Anticipating current student culture by a full century, read GKC's argument:
The French Revolution was really an heroic and decisive thing, because the Jacobins willed something definite and limited. They desired the freedoms of democracy, but also all the vetoes of democracy. They wished to have votes and not to have titles. Republicanism had an ascetic side in Franklin or Robespierre as well as an expansive side in Danton or Wilkes. Therefore they have created something with a solid substance and shape, the square social equality and peasant wealth of France.

But since then the revolutionary or speculative mind of Europe has been weakened by shrinking from any proposal because of the limits of that proposal. Liberalism has been degraded into liberality. Men have tried to turn "revolutionise" from a transitive to an intransitive verb. The Jacobin could tell you not only the system he would rebel against, but (what was more important) the system he would not rebel against, the system he would trust. But the new rebel is a Sceptic, and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. Thus
  • he writes one book complaining that imperial oppression insults the purity of women, and then he writes another book (about the sex problem) in which he insults it himself.
  • He curses the Sultan because Christian girls lose their virginity, and then curses Mrs. Grundy because they keep it.
  • As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then, as a philosopher, that all life is waste of time.
  • A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant, and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself.
  • A man denounces marriage as a lie, and then denounces aristocratic profligates for treating it as a lie.
  • He calls a flag a bauble, and then blames the oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away that bauble.
  • The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting, where he proves that they practically are beasts.
In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite sceptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines.In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men.

Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.
- G K Chesterton, The Suicide of Thought in Orthodoxy [my formatting].

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Quote of the day: misplaced humility

"It is impossible without humility to enjoy anything - even pride.

"But what we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about humself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert hiumself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt - the Divine Reason. Huxley preached a humility content to learn from Nature. But the new skeptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn. [...]

"Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own."
- G K Chesterton, The Suicide of Thought, in Orthodoxy, 1908.

I'm not sure that this misplaced humility is actually humility - indeed, I'm sure that in moving humility, it destroys it, and I think Chesterton is getting at that. But how deceitful our hearts, that we misplace humility and are proud of it. I'm not sure whether GKC saw that coming - that we boast that we cannot know, should not know, and do not permit others to know. Hence the assumption, that if you tell someone some news as truth, you must be arrogant. "Aren't Christians arrogant to claim to know the truth?" Humility is found in ambition, Chesterton would reply - knowing that we are so small that we delight in bigger things. It isn't found in claiming that we can know nothing. When we say that we know the truth as Christians, we point to ourselves as small, that there is something bigger, more exciting, more dependable, more worthy. That is humility. Or as the apostle Paul said, "What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake." [2 Corinthians 4]