A Conversation

Roger Scruton and Jordan Peterson. Amazing! We get:

1 – Penetrating diagnoses of our time. Explanations, prescriptions, example: how should serious people think and reflect on life in this present age, for example. Just look at the title given for the conversation: Apprehending the transcendent.

2 – Bonus observations on music, art, philosophy, literature, and the mercy of God. One of these makes sense out of why Game of Thrones appeals – a story written in the terms in which all books are presently taught: all human interactions are just games of power. Correctives are offered, largely from Russian literature.

3 – Wit: Peterson’s remark when Scruton says he is an example of cultural appropriation of the English ideal of the Gentleman because he endeavors and fails. Dry, understated, and thoroughly amusing.

4 – A conversation with anybody in which Scruton constantly says he agrees–except for once!

Plato and the Body

“If human existence sans bodies is better, could you blog about why God made us with bodies and why we will be raised with them?”

The question was posed to me on twitter. The request was to answer on my blog.

I’m happy to blog.

Have I said human existence without bodies is better? I do not remember having done so. I am looking forward to the resurrection because I’ll have a better body. Let me also say, I prefer Plato and I think he is defensible. But I’ll abandon Plato if it can be demonstrated that he is incompatible with Christianity. I defend Plato, also, because I think he is ignorantly dismissed. You can be very learned and ignorantly dismiss Plato. Plato is not easily dealt with.

The assumption, I am guessing, is that because I’m a Platonist I believe existence without bodies is better. For the pagan Platonist, the body is a prison. Even for Origen, the body was a punishment. But Origen was disciplined by Scripture, and this changed his Platonism; a punishment is not the same as a prison. I got the sense reading him that 1 Cor 15 was a very important passage for him. He believed in the resurrection very much, and thought hard about how the body of the resurrection differs from the perishable body that is sown. Just there we can see a development of Platonism, and that is an important thing to remember.

Some persons who are not sympathetic to Platonism, or ignorant of it, find it convenient to take a view that allows for no development. This is what they think Plato said (which may or may not be right), and this, then, must be what Platonism actually is. Is there more than a superficial acquaintance with the more popular and less technical of Plato’s writings? I have often not found that there is not. If Platonism is allowed to be Platonic, however, it is an idea, it is formal, it is a principle of intelligible coherence which can be grasped more clearly as we learn more about it. If you are not a Platonist, you may not believe that about Platonism. It is just a concept, you may think, that Plato invented. But a Platonist must be allowed to believe it is something independent of Plato to which we can have better access than Plato did. It can be seen more clearly, apprehended better, since it is, after all, an object of knowledge. We must be allowed to believe that Platonism is the Form of philosophy (as I suppose Hegelians believe Hegel’s is philosophy come of age).

If Platonism may develop (that is, if our apprehension of a better philosophy may proceed on the assumption that Plato first discovered the broad outlines of what we hold), then pagan Platonism may be corrected by Christian Platonism, and Christian Platonism become more robust and consistent. I believe Platonism is true, and so I think the Christian appropriation leaves us with a better Platonism than Plato held. Did Aristotle get things right? Is he valuable? Of course. But Plato is fundamental in a way Aristotle can never be. Do I believe in the transmigration of the soul? I do not. I do believe I’ll transmigrate from this old body into one that is better, and therefore different. I’ll take Aquinas’ description of the resurrected body, for example. I find it eminently Platonic. That is not the same as the reincarnation which Plato believed.

Platonism and Gnosticism

Another thing to consider about the conditional above, is that unexamined views of Platonism tend to get distorted by views on Gnosticism. It is assumed that Gnosticism is Christianity ruined by Platonic thought. If you think that, then you get a debased view of Platonism. Let me counter that view with three names: Irenaeus, Origen and Plotinus.

When the church needed champions to take on Gnosticism and defeat it, who did it call on? The most obvious name is Irenaeus. According to Eric Osborne, a qualified and respected historian of the early church, Irenaeus was a Platonist. That is how Osborne characterizes Irenaeus in his monograph on the same. So who did the church call on to write a manual in tedious detail listing all the many wrong teachings of this variegated phenomenon later designated as Gnosticism? A man whose philosophy is clearly identifiable as Platonic. It was not a bad move. Irenaeus is still our main source and the main argument against Gnosticism.

The other person the church called on repeatedly was Origen. Origen traveled to debates against Gnostics, was valued for refuting them, and probably knew them very well. I say this because he lived in the epicenter of the more reputable Gnosticism, Alexandria, and even went to some of their secret meetings when he was young. Was Origen a Platonist? There is little doubt on that score. Platonism sometimes overwhelmed his Christianity. No Christian of his day would have called him a gnostic though (except for Clement who also resisted the Gnostics and called himself the true gnostic). Yet he was called on to debate Gnostics and refute them. He understood and repudiated them without, obviously, repudiating Plato.

These two are the main champions of the church against Gnosticism that I know of, and both can accurately be described as Platonists. The problem with Gnostics is not that they used Plato. It is that they got two things wrong: Plato and Christianity. Nobody orthodox will deny they fiddled and took liberties and distorted Christianity. We need to realize they were doing the same with Plato—a popularized, bowdlerized, irresponsible appropriation of some Platonic elements.

After Plato, the next greatest pagan Platonist was Plotinus. He had some Gnostic students attending his teaching sessions in Rome. The way Plotinus taught, we are told by his pupil Porphyry, was this. His students would read a portion of some philosopher (Aristotle say, or Numenius) and then discuss the philosophy. Or they would present papers about things. There would be a discussion which Plotinus would observe, mostly in silence. After a few days, when the discussion was winding down, Plotinus would pronounce himself. Porphyry encouraged him to write these pronunciations down, which Plotinus did. One of them was a treatise against Gnosticism. The Platonic Plotinus was decidedly against Gnosticism, and if his manner of teaching is accurately described by his pupil, then he no doubt had some familiarity with the Gnosticism his students embraced. He hated it.

Plotinus criticized Gnosticism on three points. (1) It was disordered in its metaphysics. For Plotinus there is the One, there is Mind, there is World Soul, and that is all. This was a reasoned and for Plotinus non-negotiable metaphysical structure. It made sense of the forms, it provided a Divine Simplicity, it mediated eternity to the world. He has whole treatises that argue cogently for his structure. The Gnostics had a chaos of inelegant and, what is worse, unreasoned emanations. Plotinus hated the lack of philosophically sophisticated dogma about the structure of reality. I think it made these students gawking adherents rather than real intellectual companions, for Plotinus. Hard to be an intellectual companion to Plotinus, but he was a serious guy and I think expected much of his pupils. (2) He also rejected Gnostic teaching on the ground that it despised the physical world, the created order. This is something people nowadays struggle with. To believe something is inferior is not to believe it is evil. I just read in an otherwise reputable history book something implying that people in the past were misogynists because they believed women were inferior. Some people in the past obviously have made the mistake people in the present make: inferior = bad. Inferior, however, can be morally neutral. A dog is inferior to me, but not therefore a mistake or somehow evil. Gnosticism believed the created order was evil, but Plotinus was shocked by such a non-Hellenic attitude. The world was good, its order was marvelous and intriguing, and it was all because this beauty was derived from, and therefore manifested, a greater transcendent order: that of the forms. That it was derived made it inferior, but not therefore bad. Everything turning toward the forms and participating in them aspired toward them, toward the Good, and this is good. (3) Plotinus also rejected the Gnostics for their irreverence: they made things up, they were incoherent, they ascribed too much to personal creativity without rigorous examination and thought. I think when it comes to defining the variegated phenomenon of Gnosticism, attitude is what really defines them, not dogma. They were the manifestation of a pagan attitude in a Christian context. Not only was Christianity at war with the pagan attitude and its irreverence, Hellenic philosophy was its other historic nemesis and one of the great causes weakening the totalitarian pagan consensus which was collapsing in late antiquity.

If that surprises you, go read his treatise and you’ll see what I say. Plotinus is tough to read, I’ll warn you. I tried and was unable to make sense of him without first reading a few very difficult introductions. But once you get what is happening, he is admirable and amazing. The rigor he expected he practiced, and he wrote his treatises all at one go without revision because of his weak eyesight. His weak physical eyesight, I should say. The mind of Plotinus is wondrous. What he writes against the Gnostics should put to rest the notion that Gnosticism made responsible use of Platonism. Neither in the church nor in philosophy did Gnosticism find acceptance. To think of Platonism through the lens of Gnosticism is to be irresponsible about a serious philosophy, and ignorant.

Which is all to say: do not assume unexamined conclusions about Platonism in order to deal with it.

What is the Body?

Now to the heart of the matter. What about Platonism and the creation of man as an embodied soul. That the body is a prison is not altogether true, but I don’t think it has for the Christian to be altogether false. Platonism is first of all an epistemology, and then it is everything that follows from that. If you do not understand that, you do not understand Plato. Plato was first concerned with certain knowledge. What can we know? Can we know this mutable world? No, you can’t know something that is always changing. So if we know, there has to be a realm of certainty, an immutable world. Is this consistent with Christian teaching? Yes it is. There is a realm of certainty; there is truth; we can know; and it is an invisible realm. The visible realm manifests it, but is not identified with it. The relation is of symbol to the meaning of a symbol.

Our body is a symbol. That is not to say it is unreal, but what it is derives what it is from something greater. I don’t know how you can be a Platonist and escape from language of levels of being. Is the created world real? Of course. Is there a higher reality? Oh yes, and one, therefore, more real. If you look for ultimate reality in the material order you will go crazy. It is beyond it. So we have material bodies, but matter only acquires anything by form. Is there a form of Body? There must be, and that is true bodiness. My body is me in a derivative way. It gets my meness from what I am essentially: my immaterial part. It is me in the mutable realm, but when I am resurrected will my body be corruptible or incorruptible? Is this a more material body? A more substantial one? (It has to be at least as substantial.) Is it made of superior matter? I am not sure. I am sure it will be incorruptible, and the Platonic epistemology leads me to conclude that this present matter is not incorruptible.

Angels do not have physical bodies, we believe. They have bodies though, just not made out of physical matter. Some might say it is a subtler substance. What is this? I am not sure how you can have subtler atoms. Do they use subatomic particles exclusively, and not in compounds that we know as atoms and molecules? I think that kind of thinking is just barking up the wrong tree. They are spiritual beings with bodies that are constituted by a higher reality, not a differently physical reality, but that is a preference making me say that. What, after all, can a higher reality be? Not sure, though I am sure it exists. C. S. Lewis suggests it two ways: one in The Great Divorce (a hardness that makes our present hardness looks like softness, or a substance that makes our present substance seem more insubstantial) and another in The Last Battle (I like this one, and not just because he acknowledges Plato as the source: all the best parts are present in greater abundance and nothing else). We can only speak of it in terms of what we presently know. We can only gesture at what we haven’t yet experienced. Just because we can’t imagine something clearly, doesn’t mean it is not within the realm of possibility.

Which is to say: I affirm the resurrection of the body. I conceive of it in Platonic terms in so far as I can. I do refuse to think of it as a slightly enhanced but essentially similar state to the present condition. I’d like more. I realize that is what makes me weird, but the alternative to me is to be flat-footed, uninteresting, plodding and dingy of both mind and heart. Still, if Platonism can be demonstrated to deny that (which an intelligent Platonism to date has not been demonstrated to require), then cheerio to Platonism. I’m doubtful, having understood Christian history to be full of Christian Platonists who were powerful, consistent, penetrating thinkers, that my Christian Platonism is under any real threat. I have found that even attacks from learned people are based on ignorance.

So Why the Body to Begin with?

We are lower beings than angels. Inferior, but not therefore evil. Good, after our kind, like dogs are good after their kind. One day, however, we shall judge the angels, and I think that is because we will be greater than them. We will transcend their order of being because unlike them we have been made to grow. Growth, mutability, change—do these belong to all finite beings or to some? You can be made to occupy your place forever: not bored, not weary, perfectly capable for you responsibility and endlessly satisfied with it. I do not think that is how we are. I think we are made to grow, and this requires the material where all is change. So we must begin there, become conscious there, almost like animals, as we are when we are young. If Angels grow, we do not know about it, but I think to grow you have to start out how we do, in matter which is the most mutable. But we do not remain there. And we will have incorruptible bodies.

John Eriugena was the greatest Christian Platonist ever. In his book on the divisions of nature he begins with the division that gives us nature: God on the one hand, and everything that is not God on the other. Everything that is not God is nature. What is the principle of coherence of nature? That which is not God is image of God. And what is the image of God? Man. Man is like Plotinus’ Nous in Eriugena’s scheme. Is that not grand? I think it is. Do you know how much room to grow that provides creatures who begin in the epitome that is practically an infinity of finiteness?



Laurus, by Evgenij Vodolazkin

LaurusLaurus by Evgenij Vodolazkin

With Laurus I have at last found one of those rare books, the kind that goes on the shelf of wonder. It is surely no less than one of the world’s few books of wonder.

Set in Medieval Russia, the story is a vision of timeless Russia, of Russia in which the temporal, earthly and mortal have been joined by Orthodox Christianity to that which is not. Eternal, celestial and immortal, in short, the realm of wonder breathes calm and purpose into the tragic events of the novel, overwhelming the child’s question ‘why’ in the childhood, youth, manhood, and old age of Arseny, who is Ustin, Amvrosy, and at last Laurus. There is no understanding the answer without living it, without being connected to that which came before and that which comes after, and with that in which there is no becoming.

There are symbols in this book like the book of the Revelations, there is learning in it like the work of Umberto Eco, and there is pathos in it such as Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner exhibited. This pathos is not senselessly, and therefore sensefully or meaningfully presented. Though I have not yet re-read the book, I know it will bear up. I am sure of it. On the whole, it is probably worth learning Russian for, since what I have is an English translation of the 2012 Russian original. It is timely, also, and here you can find the author’s explanation of what he was aiming for in terms of our times.

You can take Rod Dreher’s word on the novel, if he means anything to you. He is right to bring up the term magical realism, and is right to point out that it is more than magical realism. Magical realism is about the modern predilection for an author’s disappearance as a narrator. It shows the impossibility of such a thing. Vodolazkin uses it to do more, but he uses it at least to do this, and this strengthens his argument.

It is a book about the need for the permanent things, and a book that shows life in relation to the permanent things. In a way, it is an apology of a despised way of life, medieval life, holding back none of the modern horror for the complete absence of prosperity and comfort, but putting it into the context of a better prosperity and consolation.

And it is a book of rich characterization. There is no character who, however minor, is not treated with a deft touch: a brief description, a snatch of dialogue, a concluding observation. Vodolazkin’s concern is humane, and therefore attentive to the human beings, all the human beings, under the judgment of the premise of his tale.


Looking up the reference in Tolkien from some days back, which I got wrong, I came across the word ‘hythe’. “On the bank of the Silverlode . . . there was a hythe of white stones and white wood.” Now there’s a word, I thought. I’d never noticed it before.

If you look up hythe you’ll see it is a variant spelling of hithe and find a gloss for it: harbor. When you look up hithe you’ll see it comes from Old Teutonic to Old English: hyđ. So that probably explains why Tolkien choses the spelling. They’re in Lorien, he wants the sense of an old place, he picks an obsolete word, gives it the older spelling, and works his magic.

It is a port, or haven, a small one, and usually on a river. English place names still retain the word; you can find some near Oxford, and Lambeth is the Lambs Hithe. I don’t need to point out how interesting it is to use this word at this point in the lives of these hobbits.

Then come the ropes, and Sam’s curiosity. He is told that the ropes are made of hithlain, which coming a few paragraphs after Hythe strikes one as connected. It is not: hithlain means mist thread. Still it sounds similar, doesn’t it? And the echo makes one wonder.

It made me think of mirrors, and the odd idea that the inner landscape of a mirror, so mysterious, is connected to that of all the rest. Perhaps not so odd an idea since really they all are: they all reflect the world we get around in and you can go from one to the other. But the idea of the mirrors being connected on the inside is compelling because it can get you to places though an unguarded portal. What if I could get into a mirror at home and come out of a mirror at Target?

Of course, nobody wants to go to Target by mirror, not for anything magical and wonderful. But one would like to come out in an interesting place full of danger and magic. And I think the echo in The Fellowship of the Ring, the sound of an unknown elven tongue echoing an obsolete English word, mirroring it with the suggestion that there’s something different beyond the edge of the frame is one part of the magic Tolkien works.

Childhood and Wonder

There is something magical, a naive belief early on. It is a part of the innocence which is proper to children. I don’t mean by that that children are pure, but that they naturally expect good outcomes. But then, eventually, we aren’t protected from all outcomes and things that are not so wonderful take hold, and we can lose at least the naivete.

I think, however, we are still children if we acknowledge that we don’t understand and as a result we still trust, still believe, desire is still strong. That is how The Wind in the Willows and Narnia are childlike and can appeal to us: they believe in happy outcomes. They are all about the happy outcome. And good stories still magically provide them, though a good story doesn’t always. But a good story always provides a good thing in the sense of an outcome for the reader, if not a good outcome in the story.

I say that because there is a feeling (a dogma in some cases) that being an adult is about losing those dreams: not believing in them again, passing into life without that simple trust, settling into tedium and taming your expectations. And then what some people do is project on those successful authors of the innocent outcome such as Lewis the idea that he can’t have grown up–that Narnia is wishful thinking. And what is worse, that somehow he doesn’t take suffering into account.

Related, but somewhat obliquely, I’ve heard it said of Tolkien that he conceives his characters all in terms of black and white, and the great thing about George R.R. Martin–an author for grown-ups–is that he has morally ambiguous characters. That’s not the case. There are morally ambiguous characters in Tolkien (Denethor, Boromir, and especially Turin Turambar), but that does not relativize the morality of his world, which is what some really want when they criticize him. But a morally unambiguous universe has clear outcomes, is the one that we live in, not an escape, and that is why we believe in the four last things.

Lev Grossman helps me to get some of this straight. He’s not altogether on my side of that observation. He makes fun of Narnia, and he’s so good it almost works. The second half of his first novel can be construed as a relentless attack on Narnia–if one doesn’t have the tools to take it as an argument, in a more detached way. But I’m specially impervious, you have to understand, I’m a congenital believer, an incurable romantic, I seek wonder and I don’t think life has disappointments enough to quell me. And in that way I’m like Grossman’s main character, Quentin Coldwater. He believes, he is scolded for believing and for giving up on things that are not what he wants, and despised not altogether wrongly, but also with misunderstanding. Lev Grossman takes the boy through all the stages of dissapointment, by means of vice, betrayal, even the gods deny him. But in the end Quentin’s innocence cannot be quelled and Grossman, incredibly, rewards him. (Very satisfying ending.)

And that’s what I learn from Lewis: life’s troughs are in final analysis small. Life’s problems, however great, are not great in the scale of being. We are at present children, growing, but in a way always children if there is room to grow a infinite distance, and we have every reason to think we will continue to grow if we will continue to live not only for the happiest of outcomes, but the increase that begins at that point.

The Most of it

It was a bowl of soup. It looked like a newer bowl, the baked clay painted black and shiny, the soup in it steaming. Barley he saw, something like a carrot submerged, a shred of meat floating ringed with shiny bubbles of grease. He stared at it for a while, lost in the detachment of body and spirit that comes with a head cold, feeling dull and tense at the same time. Outside it was snowing.

He sighed, and began to eat the soup. It had something spicy and made his nose run. He wiped it on his sleeve and wished he had not, because he had been using his sleeve for that too long now. He used his left sleeve, high up, near the shoulder. Then he sniffed hard, winced at the pressure in his head and sat back. The soup continued to steam. The fire popped, and he turned to look at it for a while, breathing through his mouth, vaguely aware of the aftertaste of the soup.

Some time later he finished eating, went over to the fire and slumped down on the fur before it. He fell asleep, a green run of snot forming on his upper lip. The snow sifted down outside, and the fire sank.

When he woke, there was a handkerchief in his hand. He blew his nose strenuously, felt the shifting pressures in his cranium, sighed. But he felt better as he pushed himself off the rug and stood up.

He peered through the panes of glass. It was all a dim blue greyness outside: the lighter ground, the darker skies, the nearby flakes still distinct. It must be getting dark, he thought. He not only felt better, he now felt hungry, and soon it would be time for dinner.

He opened a door and descended the cold, winding stairs into darkness. At the bottom he stopped to blow his nose again, and now the new handkerchief was all used. He stuffed it in his blouse. He pushed open the heavy wooden door, and walked into a draughty hallway. Light filtered in from high above, a fog dimmed light that brought snowflakes with it. The snow on the floor was slightly trampled. Now he heard sounds: creaking sounds, and banging. Cooler drafts troubled the powdery snow along the sides of the hall, and doors were heard slamming. They’re coming in for dinner, he thought.

He felt the cold on his head, breathed the winter in through his nasal passages for a change. It was stimulating and he felt good now, almost full of health. He knew it wouldn’t last, but at least it would last long enough to have a good meal. He hurried along holding his face up to catch the cool snowflakes, closing his eyes to concentrate on the feeling and hoping they had roasted a hog.


Some people are bothered by magic. Magic in stories, that is. I’ve never been of that opinion, and while I’ve lived close to it, it has never been the sort of scruple I’ve allowed to stand between me and a good story. But there are people who do. I wonder sometimes if it is that they do not want stories hard enough, and I think there is a refusal of wonder (like Thomas who did not want to believe) at least implied–if not involved–in this. But, like I said, I’m not much in sympathy with that point of view.

Why not? Because I think it is based on ignorance, and we all have too much of that to be able to afford a great deal of patience with any discernible manifestation. Still, if there is something to be done about it, then let us attempt it. So that’s what I want to do: take on the whole magic thing and reason about it, distinguish, point out things, let light shine a bit into the darkness (out of me, into you:-). Let me argue that it is an unreasonable attitude to shun magic in literature.

Because at the least we have to talk about it. Ignoring it and responding without careful thought is neither wise nor prudent. The only thing that leads to is the unexamined life, and if you prefer that, you deserve it. But the unexamined life with all its false security is in the end a dull life and worse: a life that is not worth living. And magic, in my view, is a rather promising alternative.

The Bible warns against visiting spiritists, mediums, necromancers and such. Do you know why it so warns? If the answer is so that no literature about them might be produced you will be mistaken. Saul, for instance, determined to rid the land of Israel of all such influences, to his praise. But, you know, there were a lot of strange events in Saul’s life. Twice he was reduced by ecstatic prophecy, at one point often tormented by an evil spirit, and in the end, to his shame, he consulted a medium. That’s an awful lot of mention and writing about strange weird magic.

With the question of why the Bible warns about consulting the wicked magicians still over us, let us deal with the fallacy of concluding we should not write about them. The Bible has quite a bit of it. Human writers wrote about magic and God inspired their writings. Now some will be tempted to claim that they had special sanction to do what we cannot. This sort of thinking does not make for good hermeneutics, let me tell you. If you think they wrote under special circumstances you are conflating two things about the Bible which are true but distinct. This conflation results in a false understanding of Scripture.

Scripture is always two things: it is inspired by God and it is written by human beings. God did not write the Bible (except for the ten commandments). Jesus Christ did not pen a word of it, though he well could have. Human beings with no divine nature penned the Bible. Were they divinely superintended? Of course. But to say that is only to speak of the final product–the what of it, not the how of it. Surely the Spirit used extraordinary means to move them along, but it is just as sure that he used ordinary means to do so. What ordinary means? Study, research, interviewing witnesses (all in the case of Luke), Egyptian learning (Moses, Solomon), literary talent (Isaiah! and Amos, to name just two), reflection on life’s experiences (surely Jonah and definitely the psalmists) and on and on. If you don’t take these things into consideration when you interpret Scripture, you will not handle it responsibly. You cannot treat the Bible as if it were a book handed down from heaven from God for the simple reason that it isn’t what it is and you will not get it right if you do. You can’t ignore the original languages it was written in, the literary conventions it uses, the times and circumstances under which the writers wrote. If you ignore that, you will get it wrong. None of which is all that controversial.

What does seem to cause some people difficulty is the corresponding inference that the writers were not sanctioned to do things we must not, or, to put it plainly, that we can do what they did, inspiration excepted. The topics they deal with, they do in exemplary fashion and are, by inference, guides to us. Guides in the use of the Scriptures themselves, and guides in terms of writing properly about the things they write about. Just as we cannot say the writer of Hebrews’ use of the Old Testament is somehow bizarre and done “under inspiration” (deplorable expression), we cannot say that the writer of the sad circumstances of the life of Saul was committing a holy impropriety in so doing. He writes to inform our moral imagination. So does literature dealing with magic.

Our ideas of inspiration ought not to be uncomfortable with all this. The Bible is not less than a book written by human beings. Even the part that God directly wrote, the ten commandments, is rewritten into the Bible by Moses as part of his great chronicle and only at that point enjoys inspiration in the sense of the term Paul means. Scripture is not less than a book written by human beings although it is certainly more than that: it is God’s inspired word. So we must at least afford it the reverence of integrity in handling it, and not use it conveniently to excuse our unexamined prejudices against things that disturb us.

Let us consider, then, one of the passages. Leviticus 20.27: A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them. Here is a plain commandment: put people who are mediums or necromancers to death. Why? Because it’s all rot and hogwash and since I don’t want you wasting your time on them, just ruthlessly kill them out of hand.

Hardly. When Saul went to the medium and she conjured up Samuel, I think she really conjured up Samuel. There are things human beings can do which they ought not to do, hidden things, occult things, and things which are so harmful to God’s people’s welfare that they deserve the death penalty. I think we have to take them seriously. I think what they do is real and dangerous, and we should be aware of that. Whether they succeed or not you may perhaps debate if you wish, but what is not up for debate is that something awful must be going on. In some way their magic is real, because their harm is real, because their guilt is real, because God really meant for these people to be stoned. I don’t think there are sins that cannot be committed overtly that still hypothetically exist to be committed in the heart. I may be wrong about that–let me know–but I don’t think I am. And so I conclude that there is real dark magic, and Scripture condemns it.

Do you find that creepy? I do. I find it creepy and thrilling both. It seems to open up something in the universe that in a way I hope I never run into, but in another way I’m glad exists. You see, if the universe is all tame and explained, it is a very limited universe. If it is not, then perhaps it also holds corresponding wonders; wonders that correspond in gladness to the horror of the dark stuff. And that is what I desire, and I think that is what is behind our desire in literature for greater wonder, greater mystery, and why we love to read about it, why it makes for a good story. A depth which is horrible argues a corresponding wonder that is greater and more wonderful than all the terror below it. Evil is, after all, the privation of good.

And God who is not tame is still in charge. We do not get to determine the boundaries of experience. Terrors are present in it, the greatest being that great being who is wholly other. There is a terror of holiness and an awfulness in mystery. It should awe us and fascinate us more than any other thing, and I think that is what God was after with his people. I think that’s the tragedy of the pettiness of Saul, and the tragic irony of his story. He had to go to mediums because the Lord left off speaking to him because he despised, profaned and himself turned away from the greater wonder. The greater magic was gone, and so he went among the shadows and shades, with those who peep and mutter and do not speak with clarity or certainty.

And as long as the evil magic is portrayed honestly as powerful but undesirable, as corrupt and self-defeating, self-consuming, obsessive and degrading, then it OUGHT to be a part of literature somewhere–the better literature, that is. And let us not be afraid of supernaturalism–for that is what it is, that greatest of the greater magic–with all of its rigors. We do not live in a merely natural universe, but one under the aegis of the supernatural. We ourselves are supernatural beings with indestructible eternal souls, let us not forget. If we forget that, are we not less than Christian? God with his deep magic maintains and runs the world, intervenes when he wants and gives supernatural powers to his messengers when he chooses. One day he will raise the dead. Let us not reduce the world to make it comfortable and satisfy our timidities. Nor let us restrict the portrayal of the imaginative possibilities to something dry and dishonest, devoid of real conflict because there is no terror before the greater backdrop of wonder.

Eric Among the Willows

Chronicle of a Traveler Observed, Day 1

Then he came down on a plane. Appeared in the terminal bobbing in a line, disoriented, pausing like Todd–nose and glasses–with a way of being curiously pleased; calm and expecting. Can he have traveled in a sweatshirt, we wondered. So long have we been with the Latin Americans.

Off in the darkness. The inevitable comparisons. Anybody who has traveled has irritated their hosts with comparisons. You show them something and they say they saw it elsewhere. I’ve done it and I think it is inevitable. We were in a taxi at the time.

Marveled he at the size of our apartment. Anything weird was met with the comment–that’s European. Perhaps it is. Waited we the Lord’s day.

The Lord’s day was a long day for one who doesn’t speak the language when what must be done must be done with the understanding in a place that speaks another tongue. Difficult, that. Lunch with foreigners–man from the Embassy that brings his family to our church. Then the Lord’s Day was over.

Went we downtown and showed him the heart of Colombia. The old, clunky church from 1611 was celebrating the feast of Corpus Christi, or getting close to. Heavy wood, thick walls, the colonial massiveness in that old place. The highland damp is in those buildings, inextricably. Packed place that night. Walked we along 7th, before the cathedral, by the congress, up the lane. Eventually we disgorged, returned we through the grim and dingy city home.

Day 2

Of a Monday we hurried Northward. Flat running, climbing, circling, switching and flat running before the wind in our swift passage. Our conversations had begun. Dawning realizations, compared realizations, adjusted realizations.

Chinese lunch for us: rice, chips and egg rolls. By common consent, all of us had some excellent grapefruit pop, which is the only instance of the flavor, or something not entirely unlike it, in all of Colombian experience. A rare treat. We then found an upstairs cafe, had the music lowered somewhat, and watched the rain on the central square.

Went we through the old town, subsequently, and round to where we caught the last bus (fourth of the day) which would deliver us to our destination, or at least 4 kilometers away. Then went we in the afternoon to that recondite rezendesvous, where there is a bar with the theme of the bullfight.

Music all day is the problem with the transportation. Having our aromatic tea there near the bull’s head, we at least heard this:

For some reason it is classified as the #2 all time Latin American rock song, in case you’re ever playing some frivolous trivia game and are asked.

Soon the crowds died down. Soon we had our excellent supper. Soon we were warming in the Turkish bath and then bathing in the thermal pool. Then some lousy, talkative Paisas wanted to enjoy things their way: yakking on.

Joke they told me: so there was this kid that had a breathing problem; he only breathed every two years. He breathed at two, and said Grandfather. Next day the grandfather died. He breathed at four and said Grandmother. Next day the grandmother died. He breathed again at six and said Father. Ye dogs! exclaimed his dad, I better get over to confession and repent all my sins. The next day . . . are you ready for it? The neighbor died.

They told me another one I didn’t get. By now, gotten, we had, all the news from the Granite Falls indeed. The drizzle fell on the steaming pool and the night approached the 10PM, so it gave us for giving up and turning in.

Day 3

The bloody Paisas (Paisas are from the department of Antioquia and talk notoriously) caught me early and had me near them. But then they would have their breakfast indoors and I would stay out. Conversation then we had among ourselves, there in the sunlight, with the breakfast coming hard and fast, and the Paisas disappeared, soon to be seen bathing distantly.

Mused we on Gravitas. What had been, what had become. It is something to have in common. Those dreams: of a leisured life, of agrarian ways–for some, of learning to appreciate art, of making a home for oneself, all tangled with our original dreams of ministry. What now? We saw the peasants up there, and their unenviable ways and children. I thought of Mr. Sensible and his Drudge. We can’t make a home in this world, but we mustn’t loose the habit of trying, it seems to me. Our conversation batted things around perhaps better than formerly. Perhaps in a few years even more? Now it seems to have become with us more a habit, this posture against modernity. A puzzling posture.

Pretenders to a certain extent, he called us. Players acting what cannot be really ours, hoping to instill in the children something more theirs. Hoping to awaken dormant imaginations. Obviously the ambitious projects that a former civilization enacted will not be with us, can they? With no community, even with the wild success of a modest community, they can’t. And what cities? There is the funny thing though, it seems to me: what will come of all of this? Something not entirely seen before.

Mused we on civilization and on decadence, there among the willows. On classes for the kid on the violin, on the circumstance of peasants. That day walked we up the meadow and onto the road. Through the fields and wood, down to the gorge where the water gushed, by the hollow shell of a peasant’s hut. Quarter ponies, ridden, passed us. We saw a yoke of oxen waiting to plow a field for onions. We went down among the pines and mushrooms to the cold waters lapping the white sands. Trout we ate, and rice. The wind blew us, the rain spattered intermittently, we passed the cedars and the eucalyptus, saw the fog on the high hills and the sun on the lake, had the company of a bitch called Luna, which we then abandoned to ride a lousy bus.

Aquitania is the onion capital. Everybody wears a ruana in Aquitania, and black rubber boots. Farming is there, but it is expected that tourism will soon drive it out. And then the onions? Perhaps cuisine will change.

Coffee down in the warmer town, good coffee. A brisk walk to the bus, a brief ride on the bus, and then the journey back. Bathed we then, ate we afterward and watched the fire play magnificently.

Day 4

Early start. Breakfast before the restaurant was opened and then we went walking on our way. Caught the bus and soon were in the city. Went we to the market, where they unloaded potatoes, the peasants who harvested it all present, haggling the price. Went we also among other goods, where tourists seldom go, I ween. We got our bus and were sped back.

We had an unhygienic lunch, as when I went back toward the kitchen to pay I realized. There is no concept here, no concept. It was good for the price, and now does not seem to have cost us more than money.

More might be said. We had Eric among the willows, the rushing torrent of that most pleasant and still remote valley. There the pines are various, some tangled, some curious in their curved branches when the needles fade them out, some domestic.

Photos by Katrina

The Top Shelf

What is this list? This is my list of astonishing romanticism and favorite books that I can at the moment remember. Books that are read and re-read even serially sometimes and what one most wants in literature because through them the old magic runs.

J.R.R. Tolkien
How did he know so astonishingly exactly what so many of us wanted most? Tolkien is my #1 reason for never wanting to have been alive in any age that would not have included the year 1977.

C.S. Lewis
Till We Have Faces is still my favorite book in all the world. But would I really have wanted ever to live without knowing the Chronicles of Narnia or Out of the Silent Planet? I would not. And OotSP I still like more than Perelandra.

Charles Williams
Some people read about Williams and here they find something too weird. I used to think I had no limits on that until I tried to read Rudolf Steiner. I draw the line at Rudolf Steiner, but Williams I find exactly right. His heroines are admirable. I just found a good price on and purchased his Arthurian poetry.

E.R. Eddison
His philosophy is pagan: aristocratic, high and cruel. But also vast, and where will you find a 20th century author writing a romance in flawless, rich Jacobean prose? I enjoyed his Styrbiorn the Strong, so Northern, The Worm Ouroboros is a great work (my review here) and the peculiar and illuminating Zimmiamvian Trilogy I shall read more than once. Eddison dreamed vivid, pagan dreams in detail.

Mervyn Peake
Rich and sometimes overripe, was Peake: romanticism fraught with shadows and derrangement. Slow move his stories, ample in detail, atmosphere and personage. His imagination gormenghastly is voluptuous in invention of a moulting absurd vast . . . satisfying kind.

Lord Dunsany
Now you ought to treat yourself at least to some short stories. I am about due to read the Queen of Elfland’s Daughter once again, I think his only novel. No great developer of character, Dunsany was poetic in his prose and situations and outcomes. Perhaps he may seem light. Fairyland is lighter than a feather on some days.

Kenneth Grahame
If you cannot read and re-read The Wind in the Willows, then there is not a whole lot of hope for you. You simply do not love magic or ordinary things enough.

James Stephens
The Crock of Gold. There’s a recording of it with an Irish reader and much better all the dialogue of the philosophers if you have the right pronunciation. Another pagan work, with the curiosity of being Irish. Stephens was very keen on Eddison’s work.

David Lindsay
The philosophy of Schopenhaur finds its John Bunyan in A Voyage to Arcturus. Amazing, startling often, madly strange. One day I’d like to read some others of his works. My review here.

Ursula K. Le Guin
I haven’t really enjoyed anything by Le Guin like The Left Hand of Darkness. The ideology is present but not much. If I liked books making points I’d probably like G.K. Chesterton better and I don’t get much of a kick out of his fiction. Le Guin takes us into a new world, and I love winter-bound Karhide, the way she tells the tale.

Susanna Clarke
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was well done. A great curiosity, what with the Age of Reason prose and setting for a long, dark, Celtic fairy tale. She doesn’t do things by halves when it comes to finishing a story out.

Kalevala-Beowulf-Morte d’Arthur
These are books through which the magic runs and ran of old. In Mallory you have the charm a paganized Christianity all full of magic. In the Kalevala and Beowulf a view of an old pagan world that can no longer be. Through these I find I long for that old sense of more.

This is for me the top shelf of fiction. You might throw in Dune–which never stood a second reading. I enjoyed the vastness and the twisting of it, but if the test is multiple re-reading, then it failed. Still need to get around to William Morris.

Bilbo and West

What happens to Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit is that his reality is expanded. He is a silly, complacent, prosperous and unadventurous hobbit at the start. Then he goes on a journey where the perils increase, and he grows along with them till at the last he converses with dragons, experiences bitter personal rejection, lives through a great battle and has, in short, his perception of reality radically expanded. He knows more of malice, treachery and avarice as well as of goodness, loyalty and generosity than he had before. The polarities of good and evil he experiences are moved farther apart than ever they were in the Shire. An what is the result of this upon his character? He grows to a size proportionate with that reality.

That is one of the things we learn from The Hobbit, and one of the things we love it for: the splendors made available by the greater dimensions (elves and dragons and wizards). We are then perhaps ambitious to dare perils, but there is more: we desire to inhabit such a splendid world and this desire nourishes the soul so that it can grow to truly human proportions. For the lesson from Bilbo Baggins is that the soul even of a greengrocer (though he is not, he might as well be) is capable of nourishment and growth.

And without this? In the reduced world, all insured, government regulated, tamed, domesticated and bled of all risk what happens to our souls? They become proportionate to that reality. By seeking to reduce the reality of evil the reality of a corresponding good is reduced. For evil has no positive and independent existence, as any serious Christian can tell you. Evil is a parasite, a deprivation of good, and the worse it is, the better is the good it preys on. Both must be, you see; at least the possibility of evil must exist (what mitigates it finally I think is a maturity of Wisdom, or as Jonathan Edwards might put it, true virtue: cordial consent of being to being in general).

You cannot tinker with reality. What you do when you try is not to reduce it, but to ignore it, and to ignore a part of what you were meant to know is to put out an eye, cut off a limb or let the corresponding faculty in your soul atrophy. Which may seem comfortable if you have never used that eye or that faculty of soul. But the goodness of what is, the startling grandeur and bright color and sheer unmitigated glory of what is is not something a healthy soul will trade away once it has gained it.

So good is what is real that it leads us quite beyond the Middle Earth–this land of appearances and symbols. We find that this world will not bear an endless growing, and that it has been designed purposefully that way. Which is why, eventually, Bilbo has to sail into the West: he has exceeded the limits of Middle Earth being involved in something far beyond his being, and he now needs a place with a more piercing greater goodness.

And so I think it must be with all of them. With Frodo and with Sam because they bore the ring, but do you think that great fellowship in the West will be complete without Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took? I do not think so: they grew too, and I would be surprised if they did not at last outgrow the Shire, Rohan and Gondor, Middle Earth itself.

And so the hobbit now with glory dressed
shall never fade, but sail into the West.

Edwards on the Imagination

I’m not sure that I haven’t noted this before, but then it stood out to me again tonight. From Distinguishing Marks, section 1 and Negative (non-mark) mark IV.

IV. It is no argument that an operation on the minds of a people, is not the work of the Spirit of God, that many who are the subjects of it, have great impressions made on their imaginations.

That persons have many impressions on their imaginations, does not prove that they have nothing else. It is easy to be accounted for, that there should be much of this nature amongst a people, where a great multitude of all kinds of constitutions have their minds engaged with intense thought and strong affections about invisible things; yea, it would be strange if there should not. Such is our nature, that we cannot think of things invisible, without a degree of imagination. I dare appeal to any man, of the greatest powers of mind, whether he is able to fix his thoughts on God, or Christ, or the things of another world, without imaginary ideas attending his meditations? And the more engaged the mind is, and the more intense the contemplation and affection, still the more lively and strong the imaginary idea will ordinarily be; especially when attended with surprise. And this is the case when the mental prospect is very new, and takes strong hold of the passions, as fear or joy; and when the change of the state and views of the mind is sudden, from a contrary extreme, as from that which was extremely dreadful, to that which is extremely ravishing and delightful. And it is no wonder that many persons do not well distinguish between that which is imaginary and that which is intellectual and spiritual; and that they are apt to lay too much weight on the imaginary part, and are most ready to speak of that in the account they give of their experiences, especially persons of less understanding and of distinguishing capacity.

As God has given us such a faculty as the imagination, and so made us that we cannot think of things spiritual and invisible, without some exercise of this faculty; so, it appears to me, that such is our state and nature, that this faculty is really subservient and helpful to the other faculties of the mind, when a proper use is made of it; though oftentimes, when the imagination is too strong, and the other faculties weak, it overbears, and disturbs them in their exercise. It appears to me manifest, in many instances with which I have been acquainted, that God has really made use of this faculty to truly divine purposes; especially in some that are more ignorant. God seems to condescend to their circumstances, and deal with them as babes; as of old he instructed his church, whilst in a state of ignorance and minority, by types and outward representations. I can see nothing unreasonable in such a position. Let others who have much occasion to deal with souls in spiritual concerns, judge whether experience does not confirm it.