Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Romance of Christianity

The great shift from a romantic view of the Christian faith, the most notable exponent of which was St. Paul, to a more classical or philosophical view of the faith was a fateful turning point for Western man. It seemed like such a slight change during the Middle Ages, but the desolation that has come about because of the shift is a tragedy of epic proportions.

The Classicist usually starts from a general premise, takes a panoramic view of humanity, and then forces the individuals seen in his panoramic view to fit into his general premise. Milton, who sets out to justify the ways of God to man, is a perfect example of the classical approach. Milton’s is a very ambitious, general premise, but he fails to prove it, and instead makes Satan seem sympathetic. The reason he fails is because he doesn’t work from the particular to the general as a Romantic would.

Dostoyevsky, the Romantic, sets out to tell a personal tale of the Brothers Karamazov, and in doing so builds up a much more effective case for the ways of God. He does so by not attempting to rationalize the mystery of evil and suffering. In the climactic scene between the atheistic Ivan Karamazov and the believing Alyosha Karamazov, it is not the syllogism which Alyosha uses to confront Ivan’s atheism; it is the humanity of Christ that he brings into the lists. In Dostoyevsky’s original manuscript this was not the case; he had Alyosha give a reasoned rebuttal to Ivan’s atheism. But with his magnificent intuitive sense of the essence of Christianity, Dostoyevsky changed his first draft and had Alyosha stand by the God-Man alone, while Ivan stood by his well-reasoned, impassioned refutation of Christianity.

In my judgment, it has been one of the great errors of Christian apologists over the last three centuries that they have not avoided the trap that Dostoyevsky did avoid. They have followed the path of Milton and attempted to justify the ways of God to man by way of the syllogism. It hasn’t worked. It never will. The impassioned atheist will always defeat the Classicist. Only the Romantic’s loins are sufficiently girded to do battle with the Ivan Karamazovs of the world. The Classicists fail because they insist on regarding the Christian Faith as something that can be explained by charts and diagrams. Ronald Knox sensed there was something wrong with this type of apolgetic and hoped for a better one.

What I am concerned with is our apolgetics, and that great work of apologetic, some day to be written, which shall suggest to the reader that in approaching Christian theology he is approaching something that is alive, not a series of diagrams. The hardest part of the author’s task as I see it, will be to introduce some human element into natural theology; to prove that God is, and what God is, not merely with the effect of intellectual satisfaction, but with a glow of assent that springs from the whole being; ‘did not our hearts burn within us when he talked to us by the way?’
Why can’t the Classicist and the charts-and-diagrams theologian be effective? Because they try to go too far with reason alone. They see divinity only in man’s rationality but not in the divine intuitions and those “white moments” that bring us to the foot of the Cross. And by trying to go too far with reason alone, they overreach themselves. They give false answers, like Job’s comforters, to questions about evil and suffering that are best left to the Alyoshas and St. Francises of Assisi of the world.

I vividly recall a public debate I witnessed as a twenty-year-old college student. The debate was between an Ivan Karamazov-styled atheist and a Thomist. I was quite prepared to side with the Thomist, because I was a very reluctant agnostic at the time, but I had to admit at the end of the debate that the Thomist had not made a very good case for God. By relying solely on the Thomistic proofs for God’s existence, he left the more human side of the argument to the atheist. When the Thomist took the panoramic, philosophic view of Ivan Karamozov’s seven-year-old girl being beaten with a knotted rope, he left me and most of the audience with a decidedly hostile opinion of religious faith. “Apparently,” I thought, “there is a type of atheism that is purer and cleaner than some people’s religion.” It was some years later before I saw a different side of God, through the good offices of Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare.

Richard Weaver, steeped in the classics as he was, might seem like an odd man to call forth in defense of Romanticism. But Weaver condemned only the Romanticism of Shelley and Keats, not genuine Romanticism. Any man who says that “Sentiment is anterior to reason,” is very much in line with Romanticism. Weaver goes on to say, “Surmounting all is an intuitive feeling about the immanent nature of reality, and this is the sanction to which both ideas and beliefs are ultimately referred for verification.”

The mistake of the Classicist is not that he classifies; he commits his grave error when he classifies without regard for the initial intuitive feeling which surmounts all of reality. By leaving out that intuitive feeling, the Classicist goes forever around in a circle unconnected to reality, leading nowhere.

There is an epiphany, much like the one experienced by St. Paul, at the heart of all our intuitions. It is the task of the dramatic poets, by their vision, and the saints, by their example, to help us to realize that in the deep recesses of our soul there is a passionate ardent lover who calls us by name.

The classical theologian tells us that such romantic intuitions are pure nominalism: “What you are saying is that nothing is true unless a particular individual feels it to be true.”

No; what I am saying is that if we strip away the artificially contrived rationalizations and the false passions (as distinct from the true), we are ready to respond to the revealed truth of the God-Man. If, on the other hand, we make reason independent from revelation, asserting only reason can prove the truths of revelation, and if we make nature separate from grace, then we have pure reason forever looking at material nature, with no room for the particular human being or the particular God-Man who should be at the center of creation. I see in the Classicists’ separation of nature from grace, and reason from revealed truth, the source of white-hating Christianity and atheism.

Was Karl Adam incorrect when he placed such great emphasis on the false path taken by Western man when the separation of nature from grace occurred? I think not.

Our thought is now divorced from the totality of being, from the wealth of all the possibilities, since it has isolated itself from the creative thought of God. Too little attention has been paid to what Étienne Gilson, in his great book, La Philosophie de S. Bonaventure, has told us about the literally passionate hostility shown by that brilliant Franciscan towards the Aristotelian epistemology taken over by SS. Albert and Thomas Aquinas. At that time in the fight against the Platonist-Augustinian illumination theory, which referred every ultimate and absolute certainty to an inflowing of divine light, and thus linked in the most intimate union created and divine knowledge, human perception was thrown on its own resources, and consequently knowledge and faith, the natural and supernatural, were neatly separated, and it was then that the primary conditions were created in which a world, which was more and more rapidly breaking loose from the primacy of faith, could emancipate all human thought from the creative thought of God. Men artificially mapped out a particular field of reality and called it Nature. They thus awakened and encouraged the evil illusions that the other reality, that of the supernatural, of God, had been brought into apposition with it from without, and that it was a more or less secondary reality. Nature was secularized by being released – from the epistemological standpoint – from its actual union with the supernatural, and the fiction was favoured that Nature was a thing per se capable of complete explanation independently of any outside factor. Thus we have all become secularized in our thought and we have schemata in our hands, or rather in our minds, which do not lead to the Divine, to Christ, but away from him.

The Son of God
Let me place the dramatic poet, William Shakespeare, and the saint, Francis of Assisi, at the forefront to drive home the case for the romantic vision.

Shakespeare has survived even in these post-Christian times as no other great poet of Europe has. The late Alan Bloom, certainly not infallible but in this instance quite profound, says this about Shakespeare:

[Shakespeare] is the only classical author who remains popular. [Ed: Bloom obviously uses the word ‘classical’ to indicate an older, traditional poet, and not in the sense in which I use it.] The critical termites are massed and eating away at the foundations, trying to topple him. Whether they will succeed will be a test of his robustness... But it is still true today that all over the world the titles of Shakespeare’s plays have a meaning that speaks to common consciousness. Hamlet, Lear, Othello all call forth images in the minds of all classes of men across national boundaries. Perhaps the understanding of, or even acquaintance with, Shakespeare’s plays is rather thin, but no one reacts with boredom or the sense that he stands only for bookish edification. This is why the theater is so lively in England and they keep producing such wonderful actors there. Racine and Molière in France, Lessing and Goethe in German, and Dante and Petrarch in Italy have no vitality in the eyes of ordinary young persons. They are dead, merely culture. No normal young person would prefer spending time with one of these great writers to going to a concert of the latest rock group. Shakespeare is practically our only link with the classic and the past. The future of education has much to do with whether we will be able to cling to him or not.
Leaving aside the literary critics, who do not appreciate Shakespeare on any deep level, let us ask ourselves why Shakespeare still moves us. They key, I think, lies in the phrase most often used to describe him: “The Gentle Bard.” We sense on some deep, often unconscious level of our being, that Shakespeare knows all our faults, all of our blackest sins, and yet he sees something redeemable in us. Shakespeare, Chesterton once remarked regarding King Lear, is optimistic about human nature even when he is being pessimistic. Yes, redeemable, worthy of mercy; this is the view of man we get from Shakespeare. We do not get proofs based on the nature of pure essences, we see proofs based on the nature of man. Such creatures as Cordelia, Edgar, and (dare we say it?) ourselves were not made for death.

St. Francis embodied in his person the romantic vision of Shakespeare. His faith was uniquely his own subjective faith, and yet it was grounded in the objective fact of revealed religion. His personal intuitions did not separate him from God, they brought him to God. He did not run away from men when he ran to God, he carried them with him and allowed them to see, through him, the face of the living God. And, just as the vision of Shakespeare prompts us to call him the Gentle Bard, so does the magnificence of St. Francis inspire us to think of gentleness and peace, not the peace of pacifism or the peace of unbelief and ecumenism, but the peace that passeth all knowledge.

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