Memory

When summer heat has drowsed the day
With blaze of noontide overhead,
And hidden greenfinch can but say
What but a moment since it said;
When harvest fields stand thick with wheat,
And wasp and bee slave — dawn till dark —
Nor home, till evening moonbeams beat,
Silvering the nightjar’s oaken bark:
How strangely then the mind may build
A magic world of wintry cold,
Its meadows with frail frost flowers filled —
Bright-ribbed with ice, a frozen wold! …

When dusk shuts in the shortest day,
And huge Orion spans the night;
Where antlered fireflames leap and play
Chequering the walls with fitful light —
Even sweeter in mind the summer’s rose
May bloom again; her drifting swan
Resume her beauty; while rapture flows
Of birds long since to silence gone:
Beyond the Nowel, sharp and shrill,
Of Waits from out the snowbound street,
Drums to their fiddle beneath the hill
June’s mill wheel where the waters meet …

O angel Memory that can
Double the joys of faithless Man!

by Walter de la Mare

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Between Phenomena

I have to compare, having read Out of the Ashes and having read about (note the preposition) The Benedict Option, now that the Jordan Peterson phenomenon is gaining momentum, these two phenomena. I am also watching the Yale course on late antiquity on youTube, and it prompts the comparison.

On the one hand you have Christians, Catholics, conservatives, Western civilized men who are concerned for our present condition, believe the situation is irremediable, and recommend in both instances a retreat in order to preserve what we have. If you think about it, it worked in the past. Western Civilization was born from the patient labor of monasteries, working among barbarians after the collapse of the civilization of late antiquity. The monastic reforms—endeavoring to retain the ideal which guided Benedictine monasticism—eventually reformed life, and as it flourished and became complex, it developed the institutions of Western civilization.

On the other hand you have Peterson, who is also a product of Western civilization, but not a Christian in any traditional sense. He believes the Bible to be a deep, mysterious book that speaks to the enigmas of the human condition, and puts us in touch with something transcendent which makes the difference between chaos and order. His interpretation is a modern one, because his frame of reference is entirely modern, affirming what Western civilization has before this last, catastrophic phase of it, has achieved. And even that is putting the thing as if he weren’t a man who is happy about the cutting edge of human inquiry in our present societies. And his message is very much this-wordly, and not other-wordly. He wants to deal with our present condition, with our present situation, and help us make what we can of the moment that is our earthly, temporal, and mortal life. He is advocating no retreat.

I’m sure Peterson has a point. What draws me to him is his courage, his smoldering but rationally directed fury, his possession of certainty, and the heroic combination of the whole. And I wish we were more given to fighting the monsters rather than nostalgically lamenting that we no longer live in a world without [fill in the blank]. I hear no elegies from Peterson. He stands up with the weapons that come to hand, with the resources that are available in the present hour, so to speak.

And yet, the elegiac mood is inescapable for a sense of otherworldliness. The rightness of the belief of those who have something other than this world is of course compelling. The children of this world will always correctly suspect that Christians are not invested, because our hearts are elsewhere. We have become pilgrims and sojourners in a real way, a way that Jordan Peterson would turn into a metaphor and harness for temporal ends. Our satisfaction will come when the wind is blowing over the grass growing on our graves, for then we will be absent from the body and present with the Lord. Our satisfaction will come in the resurrection, and that is an entirely different order from the present: it is the new creation, and we are still in the old.

I find at present that these two phenomena are in many ways irreconcilable, and I also find that this does not satisfy me. Is it one of the intractabilities that shapes the Christian life in overlapping ages? It is something to keep investigating.

Explaining the Reformation

One of the difficulties I find in explaining the Reformation to people of our time is that we often assume that the Reformers were converted the same terms we think of our own conversion. In some cases this involves thinking that they reached a point in which they decided to abandon unbelief and to believe. On the one hand, you can raise a lot of suspicion by suggesting to persons who believe in the importance of personal conversion for real Christianity that the Reformers had no such experience. On the other hand lies the dishonesty of failing to understand their thought and experience on their own terms rather than ours. They were Christians, but they did not express their Christianity in every way as we do.

It seems like a good opportunity to make a few things clear.

1 You are not saved because of a personal decision you made. You can only be saved because God choses to convert you. God may do this suddenly, or he may do it gradually. Your conversion may be so gradual or so early that you are not conscious of a specific time during which you went from unbelief to belief. It seems to me that if we think carefully about believing, we do not find that believing is something we deliberately decide to do. We are persuaded about something or not, and what we discover when we become introspective is that we already really do believe (or still do not because we aren’t persuaded). The point is, we find out that it is already true, not that we can make it true.

It is one thing to be converted, it is another thing to be conscious of how it transpired. When, for example, did I go from acknowledging the existence of the person who would be my wife to loving her? I am not sure. Nor do I live in a situation in which I have to examine myself and give an account that demonstrates that transition. The question is (if the question even arises): do I love her now, not do I have a memory of at any point coming to love her. When we ask people about their conversion these days, we ask them about their understanding of that event. It was not a question that I find the Reformers making (which does not mean it is an invalid question) (that I do not find them making that question may be entirely due to my limited exposure to what they wrote, but I have encountered nothing that leads me to think otherwise). An event may not be a specific point of time, and it may take place without being entirely understood by the person in the midst of it. The rise of the papacy, for example, was an event: long, complex, and with many inadvertent factors. We cannot make the requirement for conversion that you can explain what happened.

The Reformers, then, are not so strange. What is, is that there came a time when a personal (as opposed to an impersonal one acknowledged, such as a creed) profession of faith (tell us in your own words) became important, but that was after the Reformation, not before and not during. When nobody is being asked to describe his own experience of conversion, nobody thinks of it in those terms. The question that causes is, when did we start doing that and why?

2 Salvation may be spoken of as personal possession, but if you omit the fact that Salvation is something for which you wait, then you have left out a crucial part. You will be saved if you are found believing, and genuine faith will persevere. A decision, an experience of conversion is not necessarily the same thing. If your trust is in having made a decision, you are trusting the wrong thing. If your trust is in Jesus Christ, then you are trusting the right thing. It doesn’t matter when you started doing this or how you got there, what matters is that you, in fact, are.

3 God is sovereign in the use of means for the conversion of the elect. These means may include, in certain eras, the complete absence of alternatives to Christian belief. It is entirely possible that you are assumed to believe, that you also assume that you believe, and this unexamined assumption be true or false. A false assumption will damn you, but a true assumption is possible. It seems to me entirely possible for a true believer to assume he is one without consciously experiencing conversion. The test which takes it beyond assumption, which is crucial, is not retrospective; it is contemporary: am I repenting? Not, did I repent? Am I believing? Not, did I believe? That is all.

Right? There is actually a lot of my own past struggle with assurance woven through that, which, I realize, is personal experience. It shows we use it to order things, and must; but it has to be used correctly. Have I? What am I missing?

Ahlstrom Vintage

“A specific conversion experience was at first rarely regarded as normative or necessary, though for many it was by this means that assurance of election was received. Gradually, as Puritan pastors and theologians examined themselves and counseled their more earnest and troubled parishioners, a consensus as to the morphology of true Christian experience began to be formulated. In due course—and with important consequences for America—these Nonconforming Puritans in the Church of England came increasingly to regard a specific experience of regeneration as an essential sign of election. In New England and elsewhere ‘conversion’ would become a requirement for church membership. After Cromwell’s ascendancy these notions would also become widespread in England.”

-from A Religious History of the American People, 132.

Which leads me to observe that this is why you cannot have Baptist polity—regenerate and baptized upon credible profession of faith church membership—before this. I mean by this that Baptist polity is a development; it is the correct answer to a set of questions which require certain antecedents in order to arise.

Leading into this as well are the two disappointments that shape English Puritanism: (1) after the return of the Marian exiles who witnessed the more developed Reform on the continent, the Elizabethan settlement, and (2) the hope of more rigorous, Scottish Protestantism dashed at Hampton Court increasingly giving way to the Laudian direction. These disappointments in obtaining a communal, obvious Christendom, lead to a readjustment toward more personal, individual criteria. Supporting this move is the discarded image, the animist understanding of the cosmos with all its binding energy. And age of the individual was being born, and a piety for the individual was becoming more plausible.

A un poeta menor de la antología

¿Dónde está la memoria de los días
que fueron tuyos en la tierra, y tejieron
dicha y dolor y fueron para ti el universo?

El río numerable de los años
los ha perdido; eres una palabra en un índice.

Dieron a otros gloria interminable los dioses,
inscripciones y exergos y monumentos y puntuales historiadores;
de ti sólo sabemos, oscuro amigo,
que oíste al ruiseñor, una tarde.

Entre los asfodelos de la sombra, tu vana sombra
pensará que los dioses han sido avaros.

Pero los días son una red de triviales miserias,
¿y habrá suerte mejor que ser la ceniza,
de que está hecho el olvido?

Sobre otros arrojaron los dioses
la inexorable luz de la gloria, que mira las entrañas y enumera las grietas,
de la gloria, que acaba por ajar la rosa que venera;
contigo fueron más piadosos, hermano.

En el éxtasis de un atardecer que no será una noche,
oyes la voz del ruiseñor de Teócrito.

-Borges

When Borges addresses a minor poet, it is to rejoice in the fact that the spotlight of notoriety is not played over all the unremembered poet’s life. All that remains is the beloved object which has been captured in a poem and made universally available to a like-minded fraternity. It is reward enough.

Jordan Peterson

If you haven’t heard of Jordan Peterson by now, my guess is you live in a strange little hole. He was unknown before 2016 when he got in trouble for not backing down before the identity-politics police seeking to hold Canadian society hostage. Yes, the unlikely hero is a Canadian. His courage has led to a dizzying notoriety and all kinds of struggle, for which, it appears, the guy has been quietly preparing all his 50-some years. Now he is out in the public view, and is getting an enormous positive response, beside the banshee howls of his enraged and doomed enemies.

This is a guy who gives lectures on the deep psychological meaning of the stories of Genesis. He sells out his venues, and what is most astonishing, has an audience that is overwhelmingly young and male. Talking to young men about the deep psychological meaning of the stories of Genesis hardly sounds like something they would not only line up for, but also pay money for. Jordan Peterson can go on for hours, and those who can’t attend, get it all on youtube. He has intensity, moral earnestness, seriousness, challenging intellectual content, courage—all things young men are not typically offered and which, it appears, they crave.

What has recently precipitated greater notoriety is his interview for a British television show in which an extremely hostile and unreasonable woman tried, with spectacular lack of success, to pin him down with a web woven of left-wing truisms and identity politics. Jordan Peterson, clinical psychologist, enthusiast of evolutionary biology and Jungian psychology, calmly and efficiently slew the dragon. It is worth watching. It is like Hillary losing the election all over again: hard to believe and astonishing to watch.

We are obviously living in a time of transition. John Lukacs indicated as much long ago. Our civilization, for what it is worth, is attempting a transition from the age of the book to the age of . . . well, that’s what makes the whole thing interesting, isn’t it? When will we stop changing, and when we stop changing, what will we have?

Perhaps it is the transition of a collapse. I realize how pessimistic most people are about change. I actually feel quite sanguine about it all most of the time. It is kind of like Donald Trump. If my money is on anybody to come out on top in the game of American politics, it is him. I admire Jordan Peterson and my money (were it a question of placing bets) is also on him. Peterson has many things going for him, one of the main ones being he is not a Christian and so it not saddled with all the silly, smug baggage we tend to carry to every event, less like pilgrims and strangers and more like vagrants. What these things require is competence, and for what he is doing, he has it.