On the Latest

Victor Davis Hanson has a remarkable book Carnage & Culture, is a fascinating lecturer, but he writes too much and so dilutes the impact of his insights. Still, if you catch him every once in a while, he isn’t as repetitive and much more fresh, and this one on the present state of the election is one of his best yet.

Trump is for a brief season our long-haired Samson, and the two pillars of the temple he is yanking down are the Republicans to his right and the Democrats to his left — and it will all land on top of us, the Philistines beneath.


I have been interested in Pepys since high school. In 12th grade my interest in literature really began, and we read of the diarist a bit. Pepys with his roving eye for life. I’ve done Claire Tomalin’s brisk and arch (though what is archness anymore? Only the ethos, as Roger Olsen might say, is left) biography, in fits (I do wonder if her Jane Austen is any good). Then I got Everyman’s Pepys for a few dollars. Since it is the period of my Cambridge Platonists, since it is the kind of detail and color I relish, since it wasn’t theological, I went for it. So I want to say first who Pepys was and second why that makes his diary interesting.

Pepys was a man of low origins who managed to go to university. He developed a stone in his bladder early in life, and as a result was sickly. But he underwent an operation—Claire Tomalin goes to the manuals of the time and describes it in unrelenting detail—with success, and his life changed as a result. He sprang into healthy living with energy, got a diary, and fell to work. Pepys was a regular churchgoer but by no means an obviously regenerate man. His greatest expressions of piety, in the diary, come after he has cast up his accounts and finds himself growing richer, thanks be to God. But he is funny because it is his piety: he finds he is squandering his substance on riotous living, sack and oysters and daily play-going. He then takes vows which he writes and on the Lord ’s Day assiduously reads over, and sticks to, and so prospers. He is a curious man, observing not only events but how he feels. When he fights with his wife he records how he feels about it. Elsewhere he reflects on how good his collection of plate has gotten, how lucky a man such as himself is to have such good plate, is marvelously pleased.

What his diary gives, written in shorthand, preserved, later decoded and translated and published long after he died, is his activities and thoughts, his observations, reflections and reactions to things. He lives through the plague and the great fire. He starts his journal shortly before the Restoration, is on the ship that brings Charles II back to England, and he is from time to time witnesses to the manners and life at court. Because he works for the navy, he has contact with parliament and many of the leading persons in London. He also is associated with the Royal Society, and witnesses some of the early experiments in blood transfusion. His roving eye is especially attracted to pretty women, whom he sometimes stalks and takes predatory liberties with. I do not say you should read him for that, but unless you get up to those things yourself, where will you learn about them but in literature? You also learn about his spiritual state, and I think there are quite a few things to reflect on here. He is a glib fellow. Went to Midsummer Night’s Dream and thought it was trash. Went to The Tempest—some old play by Shakespeare. He’s rather more fond of Restoration drama, though he saw Bartholomew Fair several times with some relish, and he specially admired Dryden. He chronicles in the plague and fire his concerns for his money, as well as for his fellow man. At one point, he describes several weeks of being eaten by intense jealousy. He has gotten his wife a dancing teacher (Pepys was very fond of music and played several instruments, sang and composed) and rather suspects she may be behaving in ways he himself is wont to. It is interesting because of how he reflects on his own hypocrisy, his helplessness undergoing jealousy, how it interrupts his business and overpowers him. He knows he has the slenderest control of his passions, and he maintains this by counterbalancing them, his avarice being reined in by his love of pleasure and comfort, and vanity in turn keeping this love of pleasure and comfort from sinking him, and greed again pulling him early into the office and late. He is an interesting human being, and through the book you can better appreciate how and why, which is why his extraordinary diary is taught in proper literature classes.

So if you’re ever looking for a book of a compendious and chronological sort on the scale of Boswell’s Johnson, then Pepys Diary is an option. Everyman’s Pepys, from what I gather reading Tomalin, has some reductions to spare the reader some of his more unsavory recorded events, so you get enough of the chap, but not too much. It also has clever illustrations done by E. H. Shepard, and the entertainment, instruction, points of reflection and insight are simply worth a whole mountain of other books.

Sample: August 10th 1663: After dinner I went to Greatorex’s, whom I found in his garden, and set him to work upon my ruler, to engrave an almanac and other things upon the brasses of it, which a little before night he did; but the latter part he slubbered over, that I must get him to do it over better or else I shall not fancy my rule. Which is such a folly that I am come to now, that whereas before my delight was in multitude of books and spending money in that and buying away of other things, now that I am become a better husband and have left off buying, now my delight is in the neatness of everything, and so cannot be pleased with anything unless it be very neat, which is a strange folly.

Ulmo, it says, had not in all his music conceived the sound of rain.

What a remarkable thing for Tolkien to do, what he wrote. How unusual, unpredictable, and something none could have led him to. He could have asked nobody what to do and have heard in reply, write the Silmarillion.

Here we’ve had rain. The hovering, low clouds, the damp, the grey over fresh green. The green has a lot of yellow, before it deepens into the summer. It is new with promise and yet on these grey day it broods.

The sounds include much squeaking from the birds, like so many variously rusted hinges, and the low call of the mourning doves which alone has meaning. The mourning doves are like the brooding promise of spring lawns in grey weather. The azaleas in the shadowless dim of the day.

It is good weather for strong tea. Strong tea and the right kind of sandwiches: sandwiches made with sliced bread with some substance to it, with few but thick ingredients, with butter and nothing exotic.

I remember the rainy season in Mexico City and the sandwiches there, and the tea. And the Silmarillion too.

Westminster Wednesday

Tonight I heard the somewhat muddly Archbishop of Sydney tell us about the importance of Christian Schools having Christian janitors. He was telling us how the truth would set us free and somehow got onto that, admittedly not a major point, but an existing point nevertheless. He had a fellow of the John Jay institute introduce him, and the introduction was enormously tedious. The Archbishop, I’m glad to say, was not tedious, even though he has not, apparently, done any clear thinking for a good while. The thing about the fellow from the John Jay institute is that he is training for public life. He did not exhibit a whole lot of promise.

John Jay was a trampler of states rights, by the way, but did honorably retire from public life while he still had a good stretch of private life ahead of him so he could spend it on more interesting pursuits.

I can’t be around John Jay institute without remembering fundamentalism. You know who the fellows are and the visitors because they dress up. Westminster students show up giving the fullest range of meaning to the term casual. You get all kinds, from slackers to hipsters, but you don’t get the formal, and girls with makeup is not something you ever ever see on campus. If you see a girl with makeup or elaborate hair you know the John Jay institute has arrived in power. The John Jay institute also got a violin, violoncello and harpsichord trio to play in the catastrophic space that is Van Till Hall’s lobby, where functions that aspire to some formality and which seriously cannot be handled by the carriage house are attempted, while decorated tables loaded with inconsequential ingestibles impeded one’s straightforward getaway afterward.

You know, Westminster is down-market when it comes to habiliment and formal functions. There are no good spaces to do anything fancy that involves a group of more than two, possibly three. Apparently, because they keep coming back, the John Jay institute is even worse. Unlike the John Jay institute, however, Westminster keeps its sartorial aspirations to the level of the prevailing facilities. It is really of a piece with what they do: very focused on study, on reading a ton, always people diligently working on stuff,  taking careful notes as they work through huge tomes, working in tedious groups through their translations (Beale likes to put students on the spot, I understand, and the nice lady that does Hebrew 2 apparently has the most ruthless tests devised ever). Even the ones you think are slackers strain and sweat and stress about academics. Westminster actually has to close the library during certain events just to make sure people don’t stay in there studying, though the rationale for deciding which event qualifies is to me opaque. Academics, specialists in the Bible, and that is the only concern here. Facilities? eh. Library? Stocked, what more do you want? Furniture? Would not rate at a garage sale in the hood. Habiliment? Not going to get judged whatever you show up in, or noticed, or anything. It’s like public school only with real academic endeavor.

Though I think if I managed to get my hands on a Trump hat there would be some reckoning. Which reminds me: Westminster lends its facilities for some local voting, and when I got there on Tuesday morning there was a Hillary sign on campus. It did not last past 9AM however. I tried to think which of the present contenders or hangers on could actually make a sign stick on the WTS campus for any discernible amount of time without success.

What’s interesting about the John Jay institute is how many Anglicans show up for it. This is the second function I’ve attended, and the first one on the American Revolution had a lot of dog-collars, as did this one. Does the John Jay institute help bewildered Anglican Americans sort out their antidisestablishmentarian thoughts and feelings? I think the Archbishop of Sydney is antidisestablishmentarian, as is our Canadian librarian. They certainly like to do it up at the John Jay institute, at least the peripherals. They even catered the coffee and it was unusual not to smell the nauseating church-coffee stuff with fake cream-powder tending to prevail during AM classes at Westminster. My theory is the stodgy John Jay institute is viewed by our president as the way to add some desperately needed glam to good old Westminster.

To which I say, let’s keep it real.

Coming to Terms with Van Til

One of the things that does not help me is that I cannot read Van Til dispassionately. I need to work on it, but here’s why I cannot.

Things that get me worked up:

1 – his private vocabulary. Abstract and concrete are important terms for him, and I gather he means by them what we use the terms notional and real. I think the terms satisfy him because he can accomplish ulterior things by it. Like careless thinkers who use objective as a form of approval and subjective to dismiss what they really don’t have the tools to deal with, he uses abstract to dismiss any kind of thinking he doesn’t find useful and concrete for all that his heart embraces. As if God’s aseity, infinity or justice were not entirely abstract concepts! He conveniently fails to be consistent in his terminological predilections. I also deplore the aesthetics of his terminology.

2 – his contempt for human learning. C. S. Lewis would have used the term Barthianism, and it is with no small satisfaction that I borrow from Lewis. Lewis uses it anachronistically of Richard Hooker’s puritan enemies. They ask: Is it of God? Then fall down and worship. Is it of man? Destroy it. I think this attitude is behind the tendentious locution Autonomous Reason. Let me put it this way. There is human cuisine. But since we know we are fallen, then we know that human cuisine is all wrong, when not done in submission to God. If human cuisine does not draw from Scripture, it is autonomous cuisine, and tastes awful. The way they prepare vegetables, do their cuts of meat, hand recipes down, etc., all of this is bunk. We need to throw out those human traditions and have Biblical cooking. You can do that, but I don’t want to eat your food.

You may say to Van Til: But you eat at the human diner down the road, and I know it’s run by Catholics. Well, he would say, that’s common grace. They have the wrong cuts, the wrong procedures, the wrong recipes, but common grace makes it all come out fine. Even when they say that common grace gets back into the cuts and procedures and recipes, thus foiling the autonomy, they will condemn autonomy when it is convenient. You are either inconsistent, invoking common grace as a magical interference, or you are irrational. And cherishing irrationality is the thing about Van Til that gets me so worked up.

They don’t do it about cuisine, obviously, they do it about human reason. But human reason is just humans reasoning. When it comes to human reason, I think it is like the human eye after the fall. Many people are somewhat damaged, some are even blind. But on the whole, most of us can expect to see fine, can do things to correct the problems we face, and human society need not operate on the assumption that human eyesight is unreliable because of the ocular effects of sin. But if you have the attitude that human eyesight is hopeless and that the ophthalmologists are operating autonomously, in rebellion to God, you will live in the world of ocular depravity, just because that’s how you see things.

I do believe in the fall, and I do believe it is our perverse desiring that is the problem, not our eyesight or our thinking ability. We can see fine, but we use our good eyesight to see what we should not. But we often use it to see what we ought too. It is not autonomy to expect that our inability is moral rather than natural. It is an inability to think clearly because you have an agenda, the first hint of which is your private use of terms to load the conversation in your favor. I hate Van Til because he was a totalitarian, and you understand that when you see his disciples constantly claiming that to understand him rightly, you have to understand he was speaking holistically. Holistic is one of those bogus words that says nothing that better words don’t already provide without distortion. They do not mean holistic, the disciples, they mean totalitarian.

3 – all knowledge is analogical knowledge of what God really knows. It is a good question, where are the objects of knowledge. People like to say they are in God’s mind. I am not sure why this is attractive, but in itself it is not objectionable. What Van Til does, though, is make these objects mediate, and not immediate. In other words: you may think the objects of knowledge are all in God’s mind, but you also think you have direct contact with them. Van Til does not. You have a sense of them, but not immediate contact. You know something like them. Your knowledge is not partial because you can’t have all there is, your knowledge is partial because you only have a copy.

Not only do you have only a copy, but I think he actually believed you can have a complete copy, and the framework and broad outlines of this copy are principally doctrinal. It is reliable to the extent that it rests on Reformed Covenant Theology, and its reliability argues for a certain complete finality. In other words, Van Til completes the project you see vaguely lurking about the Reformation of understanding fundamental reality in doctrinal rather than in philosophical categories. Hence the private language. Hence the need to argue against Aquinas knowing anything, and with Barth against any kind of natural understanding of anything at all. It is the ultimate ill-tempered assault on the humanities, and it ploughs deep screaming furrows in my soul.

What is the problem of coopting the categories of philosophical inquiry? If they were developed by pagans, isn’t it about time we changed them? Well, what if the language developed originally was adequate? And what if the language of doctrine was developed to stand upon that original terminology and specially describe the theological depths, rather than everything altogether? I realize that here my suspicious is taking me particularly far out into the realm of speculation—but I actually think speculating is how we learn what we did not formerly understand. Suppose the language of philosophy is good, and the understanding real, and that theology further built on this and specialized its own terminology assuming correctly the rightness of the ancient philosophy it assimilated and incorporated? What are you going to accomplish by removing this and setting up a new, bogus and truncated alternative? You will at some point start reinterpreting Scripture, that’s what.

4 – he claims that God is one person. This is actually believed to be ingenious by his supporters. No, Van Til does not deny there are three persons in the Trinity, but he does not see that as God’s superabundant personality. He believes God is absolute person, his essence is personal, and his personality is part of his divine simplicity. (It reminds me of the saying another frustrated inmate recently made about how they cherish irrationality.) Why? Personality is concrete, not abstract. This is touted as a way to maintain theology that isn’t vague, if you remember that concrete is real and abstract is vague. Real solid, you see. He has framed the whole discussion in his own private language and as a result achieved a new, spectacular insight with terminology at odds with catholic expression in order to prevent something that is a problem for none but his silly followers. But you can understand why all the theology faculty Westminster employs graduates from . . . Westminster.

Van Til even makes the obnoxious claim that Rome may have good theology when it comes to the Trinity, but they’re entitled to it. That is the kind of thing that makes my vision dim with an overcrowding and cosmic annoyance. It is hard to find anything better than Aquinas on the Trinity. I do not believe it exists and strongly doubt it ever will. But, that is not the Van Tillian narrative, of course.

And now I know why they have a course on the Trinity, and why they try to do the whole thing in one semester, reading the primary sources from start to finish, and why Edwards gets amazingly skipped, but not Van Til.

Do you understand what I’m getting at?