Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

Ratzinger: In the Beginning

June 17, 2018

In the Beginning
A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
(Eerdmans, 1986)
100 p.

Based on four Lenten homilies given in 1981, this book examines the first three chapters of Genesis in the light of both the Church’s enduring teaching and our contemporary situation.

It is a theological study, not a scientific one, but Cardinal Ratzinger does grapple with how the sciences have affected our theological understanding of these foundational texts. He makes a basic point — basic, but nonetheless often forgotten — that the Bible is not a scientific text, and should not be read as one. Scripture itself varies its images of God’s creative action, even giving two distinct creation accounts, so that we are to understand that we should distinguish the content — what is being said — from the form in which it is said. And what is being said is something theological:

Its purpose ultimately would be to say one thing: God created the world. The world is not, as people used to think then, a chaos of mutually opposed forces; nor is it the dwelling of demonic powers from which human beings must protect themselves. The sun and the moon are not deities that rule over them, and the sky that stretches over their heads is not full of mysterious and adversary divinities. Rather, all of this comes from one power, from God’s eternal Reason, which became — in the Word — the power of creation. All of this comes from the same Word of God that we meet in the act of faith.

For Christians, by long established tradition, the Scriptures are read and interpreted with the understanding that they form a unity, a unity founded on Christ: the whole points to him. Applied to the Creation accounts, this means that we should not be surprised to find that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who in that particularity might be thought a kind of local deity, is actually the Creator of all things, the God and father of all, whose salvation is ultimately intended for all — and that this universal fatherhood is precisely what Christ came to make manifest. The creative action of God is mediated by his Son, the Word, by whom and in whom the rational structure of reality is constituted — and this order in things is itself one of the principal truths the creation accounts are meant to teach.

The idea that the world is made according to a rational order Ratzinger finds reinforced by the use of numbers in the creation accounts. There are the 7 days of creation, of course, but also instances of three and four, and the phrase “And God said” occurs ten times, which he (following a tradition?) argues is meant to remind us of the Ten Commandments, suggesting a harmony between the physical and moral orders, as both proceeding from the same source.

But what does it mean to talk about Creation in an age that can give a thorough and persuasive temporal account of how the world came to be the way it is? Is it still reasonable to speak about “Creation”? The Catholic tradition says that it is reasonable, for the good and obvious reason that being does not explain itself. The state of things may be, at some level of explanation, explicable in terms of some underlying order, but that underlying order does not account for itself. Scientific explanations of the physical order, no matter how elaborate and ingenious and praiseworthy, are ultimately incomplete, because powerless to account for the principles operative within that physical order. This is an inescapable conclusion derived from the empirical nature of the sciences. Moreover, there are aspects of the world, such as the moral order, which the sciences are not equipped to investigate.

Cardinal Ratzinger takes a special interest in the passage in Genesis 2 (v.4-9) in which God makes man from the dust of the earth. What does this teach us? It does not explain “how human persons come to be but rather what they are”. He identifies at least three things we should notice: first, a man is not God, he is made and does not make himself, he is contingent and not necessary; second, a man is neither a beast nor a demon (as could be inferred from some other, non-Biblical creation stories), but good, as being the special creation of a good God; and third, all men are equal in dignity and, in their common origin, unified. This unity is underlined and augmented by Christianity, for the Incarnation united our common nature to God himself, thereby further uniting each of us to one another, and in a most exalted sense.

In the story of the Fall, we see that humanity, made good in its essence and oriented to God, also lives under limitations imposed by the nature of good and evil. We have freedom, but must not use that freedom in certain ways. Denial of those limitations — which he argues is “a fundamental part of what constitutes modernity” — means a denial of the reality of things as they actually are. When we live in that way, rejecting creation and not acknowledging that things have natures independent of our will, we live in untruth, which the Scriptures call the realm of death. This same denial — called sin — destroys our relationships with one another, with the world, and with its Creator, a destruction that can ultimately be repaired and restored only by the Creator himself, and this is the meaning of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection: to re-establish relationships. Christ, once again, is at the centre.


[Creation and humility]
The fundamental Christian attitude is one of humility, a humility of being, not a merely moralistic one: being as receiving, accepting oneself as created and dependent on love.

[Doing and seeing]
People recognize the good only when they themselves do it. They recognize the evil only when they do not do it.

Eliot: The Idea of a Christian Society

April 22, 2018

The Idea of a Christian Society
T.S. Eliot
(Harcourt Brace, 1949) [1938]
75 p.

Written on the cusp of the outbreak of the Second World War, during a time of tension and unrest, this essay — originally an address — outlines Eliot’s ideas about the potential futures for British society, and for Western societies more generally.

He saw British society as being on an edge between a Christian society, informed by Christian principles, and a pagan one, shaped by one or the other of fascism or communism. Interestingly, he didn’t consider his contemporary society as belonging to either of those broad alternatives, its formerly Christian character having been gradually worn away by subtle pressures, but rather characterized it as a “negative society”, which he described in this way:

“In a negative liberal society you have no agreement as to there being any body of knowledge which any educated person should have acquired at any particular stage: the idea of wisdom disappears, and you get sporadic and unrelated experimentation.”

Western commitments to “liberalism” and “democracy” he took as being largely empty, the meaning of the words having degenerated into little more than self-congratulatory labels. (“If anybody ever attacked democracy, I might discover what the word meant.”) The salient point about a negative society, so described, is that it must eventually give way to something else, something with a more positive view of what it stands for.

The more positive social reality favoured by Eliot is the Christian one, by which he means a civic arena governed by Christian principles, even if many citizens are only nominally religious. This is perhaps the most surprising thing about the general thrust of his proposal, especially for those modern Christians dandled on the knee of Kierkegaard or Hauerwas, who, turning lemons to lemonade, have convinced themselves that a small Christian community of devout believers is actually preferable to a broad social consensus comprised mainly of half-hearted religious adherents. Not so, says Eliot:

“A Christian community is one in which there is a unified religious-social code of behaviour. It should not be necessary for the ordinary individual to be wholly conscious of what elements are distinctly religious and Christian, and what are merely social and identified with his religion by no logical implication. I am not requiring that the community should contain more “good Christians” than one would expect to find under favourable conditions. The religious life of the people would be largely a matter of behaviour and conformity…”

His reasons for favouring this arrangement are that it is better for the lukewarm, for it is better to be unthinkingly compliant with Christian principles than with pagan ones, and it is better for the devout, for why favour conditions that make living the Christian life more difficult? His views are rooted in an appreciation for the ways in which habits and subtle social pressures can support or erode religious faith even in the most intentional and dedicated believers:

“For the great majority of the people — and I am not here thinking of social classes, but of intellectual strata — religion must be primarily a matter of behaviour and habit, must be integrated with its social life, with its business and its pleasures; and the specifically religious emotions must be a kind of extension and sanctification of the domestic and social emotions. Even for the most highly developed and conscious individual, living in the world, a consciously Christian direction of thought and feeling can only occur at particular moments during the day and during the week, and these moments themselves recur in consequence of formed habits; to be conscious, without remission, of a Christian and a non-Christian alternative at moments of choice, imposes a very great strain. The mass of the population, in a Christian society, should not be exposed to a way of life in which there is too sharp and frequent a conflict between what is easy for them or what their circumstances dictate and what is Christian, The compulsion to live in such a way that Christian behaviour is only possible in a restricted number of situations, is a very powerful force against Christianity; for behaviour is as potent to affect belief, as belief to affect behaviour.”

A Christian society, then, would be “not a society of saints, but of ordinary men, of men whose Christianity is communal before being individual”, one in which men “may frequently perform un-Christian acts… [but] must never attempt to defend their actions on un-Christian principles.”

This sort of social consensus could only be realized, Eliot thought, in a society “where the great majority of the sheep belong to one fold”. Thus he argued for an established church, though one in which “the temporal and the spiritual would never be identified”, and in which citizens would favour their membership in the church over their membership in the nation, as reflecting a proper ordering of attachments. How this proper ordering would be established and maintained he does not say.


All of this, as I say, may strike a modern Christian, grown accustomed to the oft-repeated dictum that religion ought not to impinge on the social life of the nation, and convinced that sincere faith is superior to nominal lip-service to religion, as topsy-turvy, wrong-headed, or just bad form. And it is true that a close association between the state and the church has risks. But it is possible that the sad state of religion that we observe in Western European societies which have an established church might be anomalies; certainly most cultures historically have considered some cooperation between the sacred and the political authorities to be natural and beneficial. And, even on specifically Christian terms, it seems perverse to claim that fewer Christians are preferable to many, or that Christianity ought to have little influence rather than much. The ambition of the Church is to convert the whole world.

Or, putting it the other way around, wouldn’t it be odd if the secular powers-that-be woke up one morning and announced that, since some non-negligible number of citizens harboured doubts about the goals of liberalism, or acted in ways inconsistent with liberal principles, or just lacked fervency in liberal causes, that they would henceforth relinquish their power and influence and be satisfied with cultivating devout liberals who would stand as a “sign of contradiction” to whatever filled the vacuum it left behind? Obviously this is not going to happen, and with good reason. Liberalism is strong enough and confident enough in itself to give the people what it thinks they need, and — as someone has said — to give it to them good and hard. The Hauerwasian preference for small, devoted communities of Christians might be a prudent tactic in the particular historical moment in which Christianity finds itself, but it can never be the state at which the Church aims. No pun intended.

A weakness of Eliot’s proposal for a Christian society is that he gives no indication of how this society might be brought about given our current conditions and the historical trajectory we are on. Probably he has no notion of how this might happen, and this is understandable. It is also probably fair to say that he underestimated the resilience of liberalism, “negative” or not, which is, despite signs of fragility here and there, still very much with us.

The principal value of this essay, to my mind, is its stress on the important support which religious faith draws from being practiced in community and instantiated in social customs and habits, and also its impolitic insistence that Christianity cannot finally rest content with the status of a private pursuit, but ultimately aims at the salvation of souls — as many as possible — and the consequent transformation of society into its own image.

I was helped in my reflections on this essay by hearing an episode of the Christian Humanist Podcast.


“A party with a political philosophy is a revolutionary party.”

“Good prose cannot be written by a people without convictions.”

When the Christian faith is not only felt, but thought, it has practical results which may be inconvenient.

[The self-destructive telos of liberalism]
That liberalism may be a tendency towards something very different from itself, is a possibility in its nature. For it is something which tends to release energy rather than accumulate it, to relax, rather than to fortify. It is a movement not so much defined by its end, as by its starting point; away from, rather than towards, something definite. Our point of departure is more real to us than our destination; and the destination is likely to present a very different picture when arrived at, from the vaguer image formed in imagination. By destroying traditional social habits of the people, by dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, by licensing the opinions of the most foolish, by substituting instruction for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart rather than the qualified, by fostering a notion of getting on to which the alternative is a hopeless apathy, Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanized or brutalized control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.

[Education and the arts]
You cannot expect continuity and coherence in literature and the arts, unless you have a certain uniformity of culture, expressed in education by a settled, though not rigid agreement as to what everyone should know to some degree, and a positive distinction–however undemocratic it may sound–between the educated and the uneducated.

The Song of Roland

June 11, 2017

The Song of Roland
Translated from the Old French by Dorothy Sayers
(Penguin Classics, 1957) [c.1100]
206 p.

The army of Charlemagne, having successfully laid siege to Saragossa, was returning home to France, its rear guarded by Roland and his companions, when, in a narrow mountain pass, they were treacherously set upon by the Islamic forces that had just surrendered to them. The Christians fought valiantly against greatly superior numbers, and went down to a glorious defeat. Their heroic stand became renowned, with the name of their leader unfurled like a banner over the long reconquest of Spain in succeeding centuries. The story was told many times, with many variations, but the present poem, written by an anonymous but accomplished poet, achieved, I gather, something like authoritative status.

We are in the realm of epic poetry. Our poet sings of the bravery and strength of his heroes, of their superhuman powers of endurance and supreme fighting skills. When we see treachery, it is a grand treachery; when we see loyalty, it is a stirring loyalty. We see nothing by half measures. Still, the poet leaves room for some defects of character in his principals. Roland, especially, is portrayed as brave, but confident to a fault, bordering on hubris, and his self-assurance in the face of overwhelming odds leads to his downfall.

Half-measures apply least of all to the violence of the poem, which is plentiful and plain:

Wondrous the battle, and it grows faster yet;
The French fight on with rage and fury fell,
They lop off wrists, hew ribs and spines to shreds,
They cleave the harness through to the living flesh;
On the green ground the blood runs clear and red. (126)

Even the Archbishop, Turpin, is a fighting man, who rides to battle with sword and spear in hand. Here he confronts one of the lesser Islamic leaders, Corsablis:

His golden spurs he strikes into his steed,
And rides against him right valiant for the deed.
He breaks the buckler, he’s split the hauberk’s steel,
Into his breast driven the lance-head deep,
He spits him through, on high his body heaves,
And hurls him dead a spear’s length o’er the lea.
Earthward he looks and sees him at his feet,
But yet to chide him he none the less proceeds:
“Vile infidel, you lied between your teeth!
Charles my good lord to help us will not cease,
Nor have our French the least desire to flee.
These friends of yours stock-still we’re like to leave;
Here’s news for you — you’ll die, and there you’ll be.” (95)

As the Archbishop’s presence testifies, this conflict is explicitly a clash of religions. When the Christians achieve their final victory (as they do), they proceed to smash the mosques (and, for good measure, the synagogues) and force their captives to be baptized — all except the Islamic queen, whom Charlemagne wishes to convert by persuasion. The poem evinces no doubts about the propriety of this course, and certainly no irony. At the same time, the poet seems startlingly ill-informed about the nature of Islam; on numerous occasions he refers to the Muslims as polytheists who worship “Mahound, Apollyon, and Termagant”. Who Termagant might be, I’ve no idea.

Regardless, it is clear that God fights on the side of the Christians. When Roland is beset with troubles, the whole of France is troubled by storms and earthquakes. Charlemagne is granted illuminating dreams that reveal the schemes of his enemies, and the angel Gabriel visits him.

The form of the poem is flexible: it consists of several hundred short sections, or laisses, each of which contains an indefinite number of lines, with the only requirement being that the lines be metrical and that the line endings in each laisse be consonant, having the same dominant vowel (rather than a strict rhyme). This works extremely well, and I found myself greatly enjoying the sound of the poem. Consider, for instance, this culminating passage about the death of Roland:

The County Roland lay down beneath a pine;
To land of Spain he’s turned him as he lies,
And many things begins to call to mind:
All the broad lands he conquered in his time,
And fairest France, and the men of his line,
And Charles his lord, who bred him from a child;
He cannot help but weep for them and sigh.
Yet of himself he is mindful betimes;
He beats his breast and on God’s mercy cries:
“Father most true, in whom there is no lie,
Who didst from death St Lazarus make to rise,
And bring out Daniel safe from the lions’ might,
Save Thou my soul from danger and despite
Of all the sins I did in all my life.”
His right-hand glove he’s tendered unto Christ,
And from his hand Gabriel accepts the sign.
Straightway his head upon his arm declines;
With folded hands he makes an end and dies.
God sent to him His Angle Cherubine,
And great St Michael of Peril-by-the-Tide;
St Gabriel too was with them at his side;
The County’s soul they bear to Paradise. (176)

It is true that I’m not enamoured of some of Sayers’ choices here — in particular her hokey-sounding metrical crutches, like “County” for “Count”, and her penchant for archaisms in a pinch — but basically I like the way the consonant end-stoppings pile up, giving the poem momentum and a certain musicality.

You’ll note from this most recent passage that Roland dies in comparative peace, rather than in battle. Here the poet solves a tricky problem, for his hero has to die, but, as a hero, he can’t simply be killed in combat. In fact, Roland’s death is due to his own over-exertion, he having exploded his veins by blowing too vigorously on his horn.

The blowing of that horn has summoned Charlemagne’s army to return, and, though they arrive too late to save Roland and his companions, they do pursue, overtake, and defeat the retreating Islamic army. In the final act of the poem, the French return to home and the traitor, Ganelon, who betrayed them to the Muslims out of spite toward Roland, stands trial. Thus the poem covers the full arc of Roland’s story.

And we have to put the emphasis on “story”, because the poem apparently bears little resemblance to actual history, even in its broad outlines. It is true that Charlemagne’s army besieged Saragossa in the year 778, but unsuccessfully, and in collaboration with one Islamic faction against another, and it is true that during their return to France, on 15 August of that year, their rear-guard was ambushed and slaughtered, but by Basques, not Muslims, during which ambush Roland, a duke of Brittany, was among the dead. How that rather minor episode in military history grew in the course of time to flower in the legendary battle of Roland against the Saracens is a mystery, though a happy one. The poem teaches us about the relationship of Christians and Muslims a millennium ago, but not much about real historical events of the eighth century.

I greatly enjoyed reading the poem. In my mind, it compares favourably with El Cid, being better structured, and more exciting, and having better characters. I have the feeling that I’d like a tougher, somewhat less mellifluous translation, but I’m not aware of any such.

When I consider the heavens…

May 2, 2012

Our good friend, Adam Hincks, S.J., has an article in the Jesuit weekly America in which he reflects on the relationship between contemporary cosmology and Christian faith:

Through much of Western history, it was thought that the motions of the heavens were regular and unchanging. The Christian notion that the cosmos had a beginning in time had to be accepted as an article of faith. With the advent of the Big Bang theory, it might seem that science corroborates revelation, but it is not that simple.

The article is temporarily available to non-subscribers. Read the whole thing.

(Hat-tip: Ibo et Non Redibo)