Saturday, November 21, 2009


We were all one heart and one race
When the Abbey trumpets blew.


Thornton Wilder, author of Our Town, The Skin of Our Teeth, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and others, has been labeled an optimist by the literary critics. But I always found his works depressing because his “optimism” is grounded in this world only. His religion is Platonic; he believes in love and a divine force but not in a personal God behind that divine force. One must concede however, that his criticism of Catholicism, expressed in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, is well-thought out. And the Catholic Church has not been able to refute Wilder’s critique with traditional apologetics, which is why the Catholic Church and the Protestant churches which have followed in the Catholic train stand in such a pathetic state today.

In The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Brother Juniper sets himself the task of explaining the ways of God to men: “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below.”

Having witnessed the tragedy, Brother Juniper decides to answer the question, “Why did this happen to those five?” He fails to come up with an answer and is eventually burned at the stake by the Church, not so much for anything he said, but because he, a lowly monk, presumed to do what the high mucky-mucks of the Church liked to do. Before his burning, Brother Juniper also
attempts an explanation of why the pestilence strikes some individuals and not others:

It was by dint of hearing a great many such sneers at faith that Brother Juniper became convinced that the world’s time had come for proof, tabulated proof, of the conviction that was so bright and exciting within him. When the pestilence visited his dear village of Puerto and carried off a large number of peasants, he secretly drew up a diagram of the characteristics of fifteen victims and fifteen survivors, the statistics of their value sub specie aeternitatis. Each soul was rated upon a basis of ten as regards its goodness, its diligence in religious observance, and its importance to its
family group. Here is a fragment of this ambitious chart:

The thing was more difficult than he had foreseen. Almost every soul in a difficult frontier community turned out to be indispensable economically, and the third column was all but useless. The examiner was driven to the use of minus terms when he confronted the personal character of Alfonso V., who was not, like Vera N., merely bad; he was a propagandist for badness and not merely avoided church but led others to avoid it. Vera N. was indeed bad, but she was a model worshipper and the
mainstay of a full hut. From all this saddening data Brother Juniper contrived an index for each peasant. He added up the total for victims and compared it with the total for survivors, to discover that the dead were five times more worth saving. It almost looked as though the pestilence had been directed against the really valuable people in the village of Puerto. And on that afternoon Brother Juniper took a walk along the edge of the Pacific. He tore up his findings and cast them into the waves; he gazed for an hour upon the great clouds of pearl that hang forever upon the horizon of that sea, and extracted from their beauty a resignation that he did not permit his reason to examine. The discrepancy between faith and the facts is greater than is
generally assumed.
It would be easy to just dismiss Thornton Wilder as the village atheist. But his critique of Catholicism is completely correct. Brother Juniper’s ill-advised attempt to present a rational defense of suffering is the embodiment of pre-Vatican II Catholicism. The reason the “sound apologetics” of the pre-Vatican II era were abandoned was because they were false. No one believed them. But the old Brother Juniper apologetics were not replaced by sound apologetics, they were replaced by Wilder’s faithless faith. He had faith that humanity would survive but not individual human beings. He believed in love but not the God of love. In short, Brother Juniper’s Aristotelian apologetics was replaced at the Council by Wilder’s Platonic apologetics. The Church is still in need of a defense of the Faith that is not made of Greek vapor.

I think of Thomas Campbell’s assertion that the faith is not a theory or a philosophy. He is right; it is a vision. I ask the question, what would be wrong if the Church actually started to preach about a man who was both God and man, who came down from heaven, was crucified, died and was buried, and on the third day rose from the dead? That would indeed be something. And I think that something is what the first missionaries from Rome told our European ancestors: a simple straight forward story about the King of Kings. Our ancestors listened to that story and they believed!
Men have done deeds in the name of God which would have made Christ weep, but the story of the conversion of England to Christianity, with which Durham is so marvellously linked, is, I believe, one of the loveliest stories since the New Testament. Look back to a time long before the Council of Whitby, and you see the pilgrim monks tramping the weed-grown Roman roads to speak to men and women under an oak tree in a wood. These simple, holy men trudged the heather, traversed the mighty woods, and crossed the lonely hills to baptize the heathen Saxon beside wells and at the edge of streams. They were uplifted by a magnificent single-mindedness, inspired with a Christ-like humility, strengthened by a superb sincerity. How real a thing in those rough days was the brotherhood of the holy men. (1)
The simple story made England become England and Europe become Europe.

Some twenty years ago I saw the Protestant Reformation as a very regrettable attack on Christ’s church. But now I see the Reformation, in its essence, as an attempt by the Christian faithful to reclaim the Christ that had been wrested from them and replaced by an abstract philosophy. The great tragedy was not that there was a Protestant revolt; the great tragedy was that the revolt failed when the philosophical speculators took over.
The philosophers seized upon it... and made it the unwilling and unnatural parent of the largest and most hideous brood of ills that had ever appeared at one birth since the opening of the box of Pandora. (2)
The speculating European has reached the end of the line. He has speculated himself out of existence. He rejected the light, and as a consequence he is now lost in the darkness. The Hebraic parallel is apropos. When a people forsake their God they cease to be a people; they become a loose collection of blasphemers huddled around the golden calf. (3)

The Christ story, the Hebraic Fairy Tale, is the story that the Europeans took to their hearts. Burn every single cathedral, church, and art work that celebrates the Christ story, and you still won’t eradicate the sacred remembrance of Christ that lives in the blood of the European. There will always be some Europeans that will never let go of the European past. Against all logic, against all practicality, a certain breed of men will simply not let go of the vision of the one true God, who lives and reigns in eternal Europe.

It seems, when you look at Europe and the world today, that darkness has conquered the Light. And one could say that this is no time to talk about fairy tales. But I think it is precisely the time to talk about fairy tales. Christ’s resurrection from the dead was The Fairy Tale of all fairy tales, the truest and the most magnificent fairy tale of all. Beyond the graveyard of European civilization is the Kingdom of Europe where He reigns. It can be seen only by men who have hearts that burn inside them like the apostles’ hearts burned within them on the road to Emmaus. Brother Juniper got it wrong. The Sacred Heart only reveals Himself through the narrows of the human heart. The wide-gated community of intellectual pride will never know the Man of Sorrows. The true European knows this in his blood. The European’s task then is to never forsake his blood. +
(1) In Search of England by H. V. Morton
(2) Cannibals All! or Slaves Without Masters by George Fitzhugh
(3) I think that it was the issue of suffering that brought the Christian churches down. The question of human suffering cannot be solved by a syllogism; it can only be understood at the foot of the cross. We need King Lear, not the Summa or the Institutes.

Labels: , ,