Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Nineteenth Century Way to God

I do not hold the traditional Catholic view of Western civilization, which looks on the 13th century as the epoch of Christian civilization followed by a steady decline in each ensuing century. I look on Christendom somewhat differently. I see it as one, whole entity from the 700's until 1917, with each century having some very negative anti-Christian heresies, and each century having some important Christian elements which other centuries lacked. But all the centuries preceding the 20th century in Europe and its satellites, such as America, New Zealand, and Australia, were Christian centuries. My favorite century is the 19th, and I think there is contained in that century the foundations of a future restoration of Christian culture.

What I call the separatist heresy, that which separates man's physical nature from his spiritual nature and his reason from his other senses, has been with us since the Greeks, but it was codified in the "great Catholic century": the 13th. In each subsequent century, that heresy ate away at the vitals of the Faith, and in each century until the 20th century, there has been a Christian counter-attack. These counter-attacks were not planned, reasoned attacks; they sprang up organically from the mystical body of the Christian Church.

In the 19th century, the attack was fiercer than in any of the preceding centuries, but the counter-attack was also greater than in any other century. The attack came in the form of Darwinism, capitalism, and communism, which were logical outgrowths of the Catholic separatist heresy. The Christian counter-attack came in the form of a greater interiorization of the Christian Faith. The Pauline Christianity of "if you have not charity" was developed more fully in the 19th century than it had been in any previous century. It was as if the European Christians were saying, "You have driven us to the wall, so we will cling to the most essential element of our Faith." That precious element was of course Christ's sacred humanity. God is human, God is humane, and hence our link to God is through the human.

My assertion of the greater interiorization and humanizing of the Christian Faith in the 19th century is not based on the number of people who attended church but on the testimony of that century's great authors, because I believe the great authors reflect not only their own personal vision but also the soul of their age. The one exception to this is Shakespeare, who, as Ben Jonson correctly stated, did not belong to any age. In fact, to the extent that he does belong to an age, it is the 19th century.

I do not see the Pauline Christianity in the British writers alone; I find it in Dostoyevsky, Spyri, and Schiller as well, but I will limit this discussion to the British authors. A partial list includes the following: Sir Walter Scott, Jane Porter, Charlotte M. Yonge, John Ruskin, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charles Dickens, Charles Reade, George MacDonald, Thomas Hughes, William Edmoundstoune Aytoun, Kenneth Grahame, John Buchan, P. C. Wren, and C. S. Lewis. The last four did their work in the 20th century, but they were very much men of the 19th century.

The Greek Heresy. It is not intrinsically evil to study the Greek and Latin languages. Nor is it evil to study classical cultures. In fact, both intellectual pursuits can be a great good. The danger lies in the adaptation of the Greek mindset. If one goes down that dark alley, he will be at the mercy of every self-proclaimed Socrates and will be hopelessly cut off from the personal, revealed God of Christianity. Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown's School Days and Tom Brown at Oxford, is aware of the difference between Plato and St. Paul. He realizes there is more than a slight difference in the shifting of emphasis between an impersonal force, even if it is called a spiritual force, and a personal God with a name.

The result of Hardy's management was that Tom made a clean breast of it, telling everything, down to his night at the ragged school, and what an effect his chance opening of the Apology had had on him. Here for the first time Hardy came in with his usual dry, keen voice, "You needn't have gone so far back as Plato for that lesson."

"I don't understand," said Tom.

"Well, there's something about an indwelling spirit which guideth every man, in St. Paul, isn't there?"

"Yes, a great deal," Tom answered, after a pause; "but it isn't the same thing."

"Why not the same thing?"

"Oh, surely, you must feel it. It would be almost blasphemy in us now to talk as St. Paul talked. It is much easier to face the notion, or the fact, of a demon or spirit such as Socrates felt to be in him, than to face what St. Paul seems to be meaning."

"Yes, much easier. The only question is whether we will be heathen or not."

"How do you mean?" said Tom.

"Why, a spirit was speaking to Socrates, and guiding him. He obeyed the guidance, but knew not whence it came. A spirit is striving with us too, and trying to guide us--we feel that just as much as he did. Do we know what spirit it is? Whence it comes? Will we obey it? If we can't name it--we are in no better position than he--in fact, heathens."

That quote illustrates the great 19th century Christian counter-attack. The Greek philosophers can be read but only with a critical eye, not with the eyes of a devotee seeking guidance. The way of the Cross and the way of Platonic thought are two separate things. The one weakness in C. S. Lewis's masterpiece, The Last Battle, is when the Professor says, "It's all in Plato, all in Plato." Well, it's not all in Plato.

The 19th century Christians did not defeat the Greek heresy, which outlasted them into the 20th century, but there were the beginnings, in the 19th century, of a necessary rebellion against the Greek mindset. The rebellion was and is necessary because when faith becomes philosophy or pure mind, the heart and soul of that faith is eliminated. The Faith becomes a myth, which can be studied and examined and found to be necessary for the psychic health (Jung, Campbell) of the individual, but it cannot be acted upon as if it were literally true. What the Greeks and their Catholic followers fail to grasp is that pure mind will always fail to find God because God can only be found through the fairy tale mode -- the Christianized version of the myth -- of apprehension.

Chivalry. What had its tentative and rather formalistic beginnings in the medieval ages was deepened and enlarged upon in the 19th century. Tennyson's Arthur is a saint while Mallory's Arthur is a pagan with a few Christian trappings. Mere fighting skill is not sufficient; the knight must be fighting for those causes that support His reign of charity. Again, this is expressed well by Thomas Hughes:

Here all likeness ends, for the muscleman seems to have no belief whatever as to the purposes for which his body has been given him, except some hazy idea that it is to go up and down the world with him, belaboring men and captivating women for his benefit or pleasure, at once the servant and fermenter of those fierce and brutal passions which he seems to think it a necessity, and rather fine thing than otherwise, to indulge and obey. Whereas, so far as I know, the least of the muscular Christians has hold of the old chivalrous and Christian belief that a man's body is given him to be trained and brought into subjection, and then used for the protection of the weak, and advancement of all righteous causes and the subduing of the earth, which God has given to the children of men. He does not hold that mere strength or activity are in themselves worth of any respect or worship, or that one man is a bit better than another because he can knock him down, or carry a bigger sack of potatoes than he.

And what are the works of Walter Scott if not an attempt to bridge the scholastic-created gap between God and men by way of chivalry? The fair damsel was imprisoned in the Darwinian tower and guarded by a capitalist dragon. (Yes, I know Scott wrote before Darwin's thesis was published, but the scientistic worldview that spawned Darwin was present when Scott wrote.) It was left to the knight with "But the greatest of these is charity," engraved on his shield to rescue the maiden from the dragon.

The Hero. There is a false apologetics which for many years was the unofficial official apologetics of the Catholic Church: Thomas Aquinas's infamous five proofs for the existence of God (five proofs which never convinced anyone of God's existence but did in fact make millions of potential believers believe that there was no God). And then there is the real apologetics that has led countless unbelievers to the foot of the cross. The real apologetics consists of the apprehension of something Godlike in one particular human being. It may be a parent, a friend, or a sibling, but we see in that person more than a mere collection of molecules.

That apprehension is not necessarily limited to one individual; we may see that quickening spirit in other individuals as well. And that vision of something more than nature in another human being enables us to see and believe in the God-man. Through humanity and through humanity only can we come to Him. If we only cogitate God, we will forever go around and around in a philosophic gyroscope, getting an occasional blast from some cosmic force as we whiz by, but we will not see the living God.

In contrast, the sympathetic bond we form with the hero is our true link to God. Let us look in on Tom Brown as he comes to do homage to his deceased hero, Arnold of Rugby, in Tom Brown's School Days:

He raised himself up and looked round, and after a minute rose and walked humbly down to the lowest bench, and sat down on the very seat which he had occupied on his first Sunday at Rugby. And then the old memories rushed back again, but softened and subdued, and soothing him as he let himself be carried away by them. And he looked up at the great painted window above the altar, and remembered how, when a little boy, he used to try not to look through it at the elm-trees and the rooks, before the painted glass came; and the subscription for the painted glass, and the letter he wrote home for money to give to it. And there, down below, was the very name of the boy who sat on his right hand on that first day, scratched rudely in the oak panelling.

And then came the thought of all his old school-fellows; and form after form of boys nobler, and braver, and purer than he rose up and seemed to rebuke him. Could he not think of them, and what they had felt and were feeling--they who had honoured and loved from the first the man whom he had taken years to know and love? Could he not think of those yet dearer to him who was gone, who bore his name and shared his blood, and were now without a husband or a father? Then the grief which he began to share with others became gentle and holy, and he rose up once more, and walked up the steps to the altar, and while the tears flowed freely down his cheeks, knelt down humbly and hopefully, to lay down there his share of a burden which had proved itself too heavy for him to bear in his own strength.

Here let us leave him. Where better could we leave him than at the altar before which he had first caught a glimpse of the glory of his birthright, and felt the drawing of the bond which links all living souls together in one brotherhood--at the grave beneath the altar of him who had opened his eyes to see that glory, and softened his heart till it could feel that bond?

And let us not be hard on him, if at that moment his soul is fuller of the tomb and him who lies there than of the altar and Him of whom it speaks. Such stages have to be gone through, I believe, by all young and brave souls, who must win their way through hero-worship to the worship of Him who is the King and Lord of heroes. For it is only through our mysterious human relationships--through the love and tenderness and purity of mothers and sisters and wives, through the strength and courage and wisdom of fathers and brothers and teachers--that we can come to the knowledge of Him in whom alone the love, and the tenderness, and the purity, and the strength, and the courage, and the wisdom of all these dwell for ever and ever in perfect fullness.

The 20th and the 21st century movements that purport to be Christian all seek to copy the technique of former times but care nothing for the spirit of those days. They seem to want Christian ethical behavior for utilitarian purposes, but they do not want a Christian spirit. But it is the spirit that we should seek to recapture:

Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be;
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, are more than they.

Ah, what a perception! Does not Tennyson echo St. Paul? "Our little systems have their day" -- "And though I have the give of prophecy and understand all mysteries..."

They sinned much in the 19th century by placing a Darwinian monkey beside His altar. But the 19th century Christians did not respond to scientific wizardry with a wizardry of their own. They saw their Redeemer in the faces of His creatures and faced modernity with only St. Paul's assurance that charity never faileth. They followed the path of the Ancient Mariner:

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

We of the 20th and 21st centuries have chosen a different path from the ancient mariners of the 19th century. We have chose wizardry over the God-man. We have killed the albatross, but we have not repented. Instead we have gone on to shoot down robin redbreasts, sparrows, doves, and every other bird that is the harbinger of fair weather. Why? I suppose it is because we do not want fair weather. We have become so used to foul weather that we think it is beautiful and fair weather. To us, "fair is foul and foul is fair."

It is useless to posit a faith in God as a response to modernity if that Faith is only a faith in a computerized caricature of the true God. We need first to join Lear in the hovel and learn the difference between mercy and sacrifice. Then, and then only, will we be in union with the 19th century Christians and with Him.

I do not see the deeper, more developed Christianity reflected in just the great authors of the 19th century. Its artists reflect the same vision. Gustave Dore is the prime example; his illustrations for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, The Bible, Idylls of the King, and other works are also examples of the great Pauline Christianity of the 19th century.

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