Three Articles on Going to College

This article, “Moral Education and the University,” is about the purpose of going and the limits of being there. Should you go to college for moral formation? The answer provided clarifies the kind of formation that a university exists to provide and deals with the important question of moral formation. It is based on sound reasoning and provides good advice, though the advice is framed in a strictly Catholic context.

This article, “How to Find Joy in College and Life,” is about how to approach college. It is highly instructive for all of life. Instead of going to college to be safe and avoid hardship, it urges going to college to embrace hardship, sacrifice, and to learn how life is actually lived. The key insight is that avoiding discipline brings misery and embracing it brings joy. Any article that quotes Zena Hitz, A.E. Sertillanges, and Joseph Pieper for insight is going to enrich and dazzle you.

The last article has the wary title, “Is College Worth It?” The point of the article is to parse the question so that a good answer can be obtained. People are going to college in order to be part of the credentialed managerial classes, which has unfortunate outcomes. The article is good at showing why this should be avoided. It then provides considerations so that each person can answer the title’s question with satisfaction.

While Re-reading Edwin Muir

Two things which ought not to be together are happening to Tim Keller right now. One is that he’s dying of pancreatic cancer. The second is that he’s getting raked over the coals for a tweet. I don’t disagree with the point at issue in the raking that he’s taking. I do wonder about the moment in which it is done.

I would usually not care, but I also read Keller’s chapter on the essence of marriage this week. I think it is profound. Perhaps what he says is commonplace, but I don’t remember hearing it before. He clearly drank deeply of C.S. Lewis and of many other good things. I wish everything he said were consistent with that chapter.

I don’t know how to account for it. But I can take a warning from it, can’t I? The warning is to beware of departing form the deep sources. I obviously don’t have a way nor at present a reason to find out if this is what Tim Keller has done. Perhaps it was today’s cool, windy sunlight after all the recurring rain that suggested to me the need to return constantly to those deep sources. One needs to return to those fountains no matter what one has assimilated. It is the only way to stay anchored in them. Past nourishment settles into one, but present nourishment can relativize it all.

I regret that Tim Keller is drawing fire on twitter in his last days. He has deserved it though he deserves better, oddly enough. There is something about the situation that perhaps Edwin Muir could have made use of. When I read Muir, I have the sense of understanding something profound while at the same time missing most of what is going on.

It is probably because in Muir you have a man who was in constant contact with some very deep sources. And it makes me think that there is no time in life in which we can be distant from the deeps, if deep is going to call to anything in us. You cannot be like them and be distant.

The Hawk, by W.B. Yeats

“CALL down the hawk from the air;
Let him be hooded or caged
Till the yellow eye has grown mild,
For larder and spit are bare,
The old cook enraged,
The scullion gone wild.”

“I will not be clapped in a hood,
Nor a cage, nor alight upon wrist,
Now I have learnt to be proud
Hovering over the wood
In the broken mist
Or tumbling cloud.”

“What tumbling cloud did you cleave,
Yellow-eyed hawk of the mind,
Last evening? that I, who had sat
Dumbfounded before a knave,
Should give to my friend
A pretence of wit.”

You have to notice that the quotation marks indicate a change of speakers in every stanza. In the first, there is an unspecified speaker expressing a wish: call down. Order, trap, domesticate the hawk. Why? Because game that would otherwise be available is being depleted.

What part of the description ‘old cook’ is more important? Usually the substantive is more important than the modifier. In this case, however, the substantive is bound by the circumstances of the poem, and the modifier seems to me to be more free. Because of that, it seems more indicative of the poet’s choice, what he wants to say. Why is the old cook enraged? He is accustomed to having game. Why old? Tradition? Custom? Or is it feebleness as opposed to the strength of the hawk? The hawk is messing with the kitchen, and it is becoming intolerable.

But then we get the hawk’s story. He will not go back, he says. He has learned to be proud. This is not talking about a wild hawk that has to be domesticated, but a domesticated hawk that has reverted. I think that helps us with the adjective ‘old’ above.

Notice how the hawk describes the circumstances of his freedom, again, the adjectives in the concluding lines of the stanza. What kind of mist? What sort of cloud? He rises in circumstances of ruin.

It seems to me that the speaker in the last stanza is the same as the first, but now he is more specified. It is someone who has made a mistake. What kind of a mistake is it? What kind of regret? Why a hawk? Why game?

McGilchrist

Iain McGilchrist these days is popping up on my personal notification network (Twitter). It is happening because he is releasing a two-volume magnum opus. Many people would want to know what he says just because of the interesting title of the book, let alone the subject, let alone the author. McGuilchrist has earned his reputation; he has already written a work widely considered at least very important if not crucial. (Magna opera?) If that earlier work turn out not to be a classic, it will take a while for the world to be disabused.

His name either is one of those that always sounds familiar or had come up in some connection previously. Do you know what I mean? It is either the kind of name that makes you feel you always knew it, or you have heard it so much in ways you no longer remember that it feels that way. When Jordan Peterson interviewed him, I was glad for some information on the person. They talked about the then-forthcoming book, and that was interesting enough that I got The Master and His Emissary.

This book reminds me of two smaller books. Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances and D. E. Harding’s The Hierarchy of Heaven & Earth. Both of these are extraordinary. The first prepared me for the Copernican revolution that Platonism is against the Nominalist assumptions of modern perceptions. The second is another such Copernican revolution on the perspective of our sense of scale. Now what McGilchrist is doing in his book is bringing observations about the mind back around to neuroscience and trying to explain a Copernican revolution with regard to the brain. (I had no idea the brain is such a complicated organ. It is difficult to wade through the neuroscience, but now that I’m in the second half of the book, worth it.)

In his celebrated earlier tome, McGilchrist offers explanations, which are not intended to be exhaustive, but add another significant detail to the history of ideas. I offer you a tantalizing example:

“Our feelings are not ours, any more than, as Scheler said, our thoughts are ours. We locate them in our heads, in our selves, but they cross interpersonal boundaries as though such limits had no meaning for them: passing back and forth from one mind to another, across space and time, growing and breeding, but where we do not know [my emphasis]. What we feel arises out of what I feel for what you feel for what I feel about your feelings about me – and about many other things besides: it arises from the betweenness, and in this way feeling binds us together, and, more than that, actually unites us, since the feelings are shared.”

I’m at least looking forward to all the podcasts his new book will elicit.  

A Reader

I’m reading Donna Tartt right now. I discovered her thanks to a tweet from Crawford Gribben and as a result picked up her first book and enjoyed it immensely. She has to be one of the great writers of our age, along with Vodolazkin. Tartt writes a book every ten years or so, which is faster than Susanna Clarke does. I think it is one of the luckiest things in the world that I live in the days of skilled and humane writers such as Tartt and Vodolazkin. And when I think, moreover, that there were people doomed to live and die in a world without the works of the Inklings, I am grateful I live in this present evil age.

It may be the twilight of the age of the book, according to the late John Lukacs, but that should mean we have all the best ones, including his. And I am grateful for it since books are my thing–because I am a reader. My mother taught me to read, keeping me out of school to teach me to read English before I started in Spanish. She also taught me to read by reading to me. There are people who do not read well, and it is no joy to have them read anything to you. They can make books sound fake and stupid. But that’s not how my mom read. I actually believe that that is what made all of her kids readers, mainly: that she read to us well. And if you can do that for somebody as she did, constantly, patiently, night-by-night for years and years, you will give them much.

I can’t imagine life without fiction. I keep steeling myself for life without any good, new fiction but am constantly surprised. I had never read Vodolazkin before 2016, or Tartt before 2018. I had tried Powys before, and failed, and, like Moby Dick, after I matured in understanding and widened my sympathies and consciousness, I was able to read it eagerly. I’ve made it through Powell with joy, and all this with promising lacunae: War & Peace, for example, and most of Scot and Trollope. There’s a lot of garbage being written, but not all of what is written is garbage. Interesting books have been written in my life time, and how many ages can boast so many as we presently do? I don’t know how many years of my life will add up to reading fiction, but they will be among the happiest.

Worth Noting

The Republic is the centre of a group of less technical works, intended, not primarily for students of philosophy, but for the educated public, who would certainly not read Parmenides and would find the Theaetetus and the Sophist intolerably difficult. These more popular writings would serve the double purpose of attracting students to the Academy and of making known to the Greek world the doctrine which, in common with most scholars, I hold to be characteristically Platonic. Its two pillars are the immortality and divinity of the rational soul, and the real existence of the objects of its knowledge—a world of intelligible ‘Forms’ separate from the things our senses perceive.

-Francis M. Cornford

It is worth noting that if you want to deal with Plato seriously, you have get to the deep end of the pool of his writings. Why should you listen to Francis Cornford on this? Because to this day some of his translations and forever his notes and observations are canonical to the study of Plato.

What you get from the popular writings of Plato is the basic theory. What you get from the more technical writings is the thorough argument. If you want to dismiss Plato, read no further than the popular words. If you want to understand and appreciate so that you may then properly evaluate Plato, you need to do the technical works.

Do you know that it cannot be said of Plato, as it can of most writers of antiquity, that any of his works have ever been lost? So there are no excuses.

God in the 21st Century Pastiche

The Academy does important things, right? Of course, the people involved are smart people, after all, and they are paid well, and travel and earn their TV-watching time. It’s like the Gospel Coalition. Good things are done: they’re good people. I do not lament the more humane endeavor of classic theism that once took place. I come to bury it, not to praise it. Scholasticism is past, so says von Balthasar, and he is an honorable man. So say Rahner and Barth and Pannenberg, and they are all of them honorable men. Have we not seem them honored? Classic theism cannot have been based on truth we today can acknowledge. How can it, coming in the darkness before Hegel? How can it, distinguishing that which must be conflated? It is not chastened in its thinking, and what has more need of chastity than reason? Reason, after all, is fallen, depraved, promiscuous. Intelligent people can no longer believe reason is innocent, we are no longer so naive. And this is stated by intelligent men, all learned men, with degrees earned and honorary; who can dispute this? Do their writings not bear the mark? If the prose is clear, the ideas are clearly contradictory, and therefore difficult and sublime. If the prose is not clear, then it bears a deep imponderability to lesser minds, a straining of language beyond recognition for the sake at grasping what is beyond reach. They trade in asymmetry, paradox and other such eruditions. It makes for a fecundity of secondary literature, and what could be more vital?

They say that scholasticism must be left behind, that when we confess one holy, catholic and apostolic church we no longer mean as we used to mean, and so it is. It is clear to us where Aquinas stands on this or that: even on difficult issues. Is this not the sign of a weak mind? And what immodesty in men such as Anselm, believing he could be right or think his way through a difficulty without consulting Kant. Let us be charitable however, there was a kind of groping Christianity before Hegel, it is just that it had not come out of the womb. But we cannot go back to the womb, we can no longer be nourished directly, we must stand free and independent of that which enveloped and nourished us while we were yet unborn. It is time to try eating sawdust and concrete, grown-up food, not lesser and more comforting pabulum. Time to drink something modern (petroleum, for instance, which was never even refined in the unenlightened past). Time to put a chip in our heads to do our thinking, so bypassing any taint of original sin.

Thank God for the academy of today! And especially today, for if worse times lie ahead the guys we have to read will no longer be read. That is why it is urgent that we read them, praise them, grapple with them, expound them, remain intoxicated and perpetuate the illusion. Otherwise they would be relegated to the insignificance they naturally deserve and people would sample modern Christianity through that which is more congenial and satisfying: C.S. Lewis, A.W. Tozer, and others of such obvious universal Christianity and perennial philosophy.

Intelligible Reality

How did Athanasius describe the fall of man? He did it in terms anybody who has read Origen would recognize.

“For when men’s mind has no intercourse with the body, and has nothing of the latter’s desires mingled with it from outside but is entirely superior to them, being self-sufficient as it was created in the beginning, then it transcends the senses and all human things and it rises high above the world, and beholding the Word sees in him also the Father of the Word. It rejoices in contemplating him and is renewed by its desire for him, just as the holy scriptures say that the first man to be created, who was called Adam in Hebrew, had his mind fixed on God in unembarrassed frankness, and lived with the saints in contemplation of intelligible reality, which he enjoyed in that place which the holy Moses figuratively called Paradise. . . .

“3. In this way then, as has been said, did the Creator fashion the human race, and such did he with it to remain. But men, contemptuous of the better things and shrinking from their apprehension, sought rather what was closer to themselves—and what was closer to them was the body and its sensations. So they turned their minds away from intelligible reality and began to consider themselves. And by considering themselves and cleaving to the body and the other senses, deceived as it were in their own interests, they fell into selfish desires and preferred their own good to the contemplation of the divine. Wasting their time thus and being unwilling to turn away from things close at hand, they imprisoned in the pleasures of the body their souls which had become disordered and defiled by all kinds of desires, and in the end they forgot the power they had received from God in the beginning.”

Contra Gentes 2-3. Translated by R. W. Thomson.

Contra Gentes is first of a two volume work in which De Incarnatione, today the most recognizable of Athanasius’ works, is the second.

A relevant portion in Origen would be Contra Celsus 4.40, for example, and Peri Archon book 2 would also illuminate what I’m saying. I’m saying that the sort of thinking about things a world devoid of Plato finds weird and that Origen routinely did is found also in Athanasius.

What is also intriguing to anybody who does know something about Plato or Plotinus is the term ‘intelligible reality’ which is the Greek word nous, its association with the divine, the physical as a source of confusion, and the idea of the body as a prison. There is an obvious similarity. There is an advance in thought (and a need for more, obviously): the way Athanasius puts things is not how Plotinus would exactly have put things and not what Plato would have said. But the difference, however great to Origen and Athanasius, is from our perspective minor, and the relationship I think is evident.

My point is not that Athanasius was not a Christian. My point is that committed and robust 4th century Christianity found the categories of Platonism extremely congenial, greatly so. It was how they made sense of things. I don’t think we can understand these Christians without appreciating Platonism better than (in my opinion) many do (e.g. Thomas Weinandy). I certainly think the only crowd that stands to gain form the outdated notion that Greek philosophy corrupted Christian simplicity is that served by a more ambiguous and doctrinally impoverished religion.

And I think Athanasius inherited two things from Origen. With these he approached his lifelong task of figuring how to rid the church of subordinationism. Proof of that is what I’m on the trail of.

In Memory

The sadness of David Oestreich’s death is the first I’ve felt this much. I can search out his picture in my gmail contacts, but he will not answer any more. We had some good exchanges, but these are over now.

We met several times: McDonald’s, Highbanks Metropark, Blendon Woods, our apartment, the North Market, Panera, and once in Toledo at the art museum. But we originally met online. We corresponded a bit by postal mail, but he was not one for correspondence that way. He was not so glib at writing things as I.

He was a poet. It had been his aspiration, forsaken for some years, and then renewed with some success. He became devoted to that, and he was good. I saw a lot of his poems in early drafts, and we went back and forth criticizing. There is at least one still forthcoming. We had a literary friendship, a common interest in contemporary poetry, and poetry. He wanted to make sure he understood what American poets up to recently had been saying. He had more enthusiasm than I did, and developed a better technical ability with it by far. He explained free verse to me once, before I read Paul Fussell’s book. He knew how to make it work.

He spurred me to write. Contacted me first about publishing something in his online poetry journal Triage. As the pastorate in Bogota dematerialized, I turned more and more to writing, and he encouraged it, for which I’m grateful. I’m grateful that he understood me, and I’m grateful that I understood him. How many people can you say that much about?

I’m diminished by his death. It brings a change upon me. It is a solemn thing to have something irrevocably removed, a door shut that in this world will never again be opened. My understanding grows, even as I am reduced by the loss. I was writing a blog I thought he’d like when I found out and didn’t dare believe that he had died. He died of pneumonia complications, it cannot have been a protracted affair, but sudden. It is best for the person who dies when it is sudden, and probably worst for those who are left. I am happy for him that he pursues better and more clearly now the thing for which he has been made. May the Lord comfort those of us who have been bereaved, especially his widow and her children.

Soaring Along

The caterpillars whose gossamer entangled us some weeks ago seem to have become large yellow butterflies, not unlike monarch butterflies, perhaps a variation thereof. They are seen early in the morning in the Fairmount park, usually in couples. There is great joy along the Wissahickon, in the shade of the tulip trees and beeches, below the soaring span of a better age’s bridges.

Early in the morning, about 4AM nowadays, the birds get going. When the traffic is still and the huge setting moon almost on the horizon the waking birds make the world seem to ring with song. The fire alarm flashed and sounded, scaring us awake at 4AM recently. Circling the building, I found out about the moon, the morning, and the birds. Happy mistake.

Summer has come with a bang to Philadelphia. We had enormously hot weather that is now gradually dwindling to something decidedly more pleasant. As in winter when you get a sudden deep cold, what comes afterward is decidedly milder than the long steady descent by increments would be.

Summer projects accomplished: vacation and NT preliminary examination (apologies for the erroneous post on the New Perspective). Quite a bit of concerted attention on the text of 1 John and several books of issues. The chair of the NT dept. assured me there was nothing against being a dispensationalist here (which is fine with me either way), but the reading decidedly tended otherwise. Ridderbos on the Kingdom, Thompson on Acts, Bauckham on Revelation. Reading outside of one’s specialization brings ambivalence; on the one hand is not what one is intent on, on the other it broadens.

We’ll see how the OT preliminary tends. I know the AP preliminary is going to tend pretty strong toward presuppositionalism. Every day said approach grows in my eyes more preposterous. I gather ammunition. I brood and conn and devise. I have observations to make . . . eventually.

John Wain on Samuel Johnson provides welcome relief from evangelical prose. He is not the greatest, but he is considerably better than anything going in academic circles. He can make a collection of words do more than plod, and he has a decided attitude. I love the first sentence of his Note on Sources: There is no research in this book.

Reflecting on what Wain writes, I think to myself I ought to exert myself in literary directions while I have the chance. The summer has its business, not least of which is German, but not unrelieved, unmitigated German. There is ground to cover on many fronts.

Borges

I am glad that in the stage of life I find myself I’ve come to Borges. Not for the first time do I read him, but for the first time I understand him. He must be numbered with the metaphysical poets.

All his life he was a Platonist–if reading his poetry from start to finish is an indication. His father explained Plato’s ideas to him, and he found it fruitful for poetry. For him among the philosophers there were Plato, Plotinus, Berkeley and Spinoza. Spinoza, he remarks, who did not believe in God but loved and served him faithfully. That is the kind of thing Borges would notice and admire. He does wonderful things with Berkeley, and how often you see Plotinus coming up in poetry? He writes beautifully to Brahms as well, and uses him just as he does the philosophers.

Many things you will learn in Borges, but mostly the beguiling grace of a secular humility. He was not a pagan, and though he was not a believer, he was of the Christian civilization, a dream from which the world has since woken. Genteel, profound, and strangely humble–save a time or two–his god was more Platonical than Christian, but the Platonical has been so congenial to Christianity, the relationship usually so close and fruitful, who in the realm of poetry and in the wake of a Christian civilization can quibble? If Christian civilization has been a dream, Borges dreamed it–though sometimes fitfully. Or perhaps I should say that his was the via negativa rigorously followed until it was lost in mirrors and labyrinths. He admired Blake exceedingly, and contemplated earnestly the platonic archetype of the tiger. He was no ascetic, but a reader who went blind, and a librarian. He felt himself an outsider in Argentina, and not quite of his familiar Buenos Aires. It is as if he was born out of his age and made the best of it, quietly resigned to no heroic endeavor, though admiring it from afar and singing it, like the author of Beowulf. Perhaps what I’m trying to say is that he is to Christian civilization what the author of Beowulf was to the pagan civilization he remembered and lamented.

Anyway, Borges is a treasure of the Spanish language

Fantasy remains a human right – Tolkien

Faërie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold.

I’ve been reading The Monsters and the Critics and On Fairy-stories again. One of the things I do is neglect the library I have, and I have a good library. So in the afternoons when I’ve written and done Latin, I return to it nowadays. It is a good time for dipping, though I’m not much of a hand at dipping yet. So I look for smaller complete things to read through, though Tolkien’s essays are surprisingly long.

We are fortunate to have these essays in which he works out a complete theory of what he actually achieved. This is astonishingly neglected, or not put into practise, or perhaps best: hard to put into practice. You’ll still notice, when you think of all the good fantastic literature you know, that he isn’t wrong.

I was reading The Elfin Ship, because I don’t usually give up on books even when I’m re-reading them–not much of a dipper, you see–and it was a bit tedious (and I squirm because it makes me aware of silly things I’ve written). There are things at which he succeeds, and more things at which he doesn’t. And when I think about it I see that Tolkien was right.

For all that it is wandery and even random, Blaylock’s view of magic, at least in this book, is not altogether wrong. Lots of things are silly, too much of it is incoherent and flimsy, but he appeals to the desire for an interesting place (Seaside and specially the book store) and maintains a sufficient seriousness about magic, as can be seen by the failed Professor Wurzle’s experiences and vain speculations.

Of course, what Tolkien writes doesn’t explain all the failures a contemporary writer of Fantasy may make. You can get the generally literary part of the craft wrong and so fail. But if you can do at least that much–and it is much–you still need to know about the special criteria that a fairy story has in order to succeed at that.

Fantasy … is difficult to achieve . . . and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.

Which, I think, is why we read and re-read his success. Potent story, and there are not enough stories in the world, and the sense of elvish craft.

Do you know he’d even thought of the perils of drawing fantastic subjects?

The Red Keep, by Allen French

This is a good story at the very least because Allen French was a historian and the historical detail is worth it. Two examples of many: the crowded conditions in which people in a castle lived and the social order of the Middle Ages. One of the things that French perhaps overindulges is instruction. But it is interesting–he points out things the reader would not notice that the characters in the story live with, such as the lack of privacy in the surroundings of a castle. He brings these things alive in the situations of his book, and they don’t come up as unnecessary adornments. What is really well done and done gradually, like a theme that keeps being developed throughout the book, is the social order of the middle ages. French works it into a major theme of the work, and it is splendid. Clearly he is sympathetic rather than hostile to the order of medieval society. It is worth seeing how he shows the glories and benefits of a medieval order, from peasant to aristocrat, from guildsman to outcast.

He is in sympathy with the lack of squeamishness that life involved as well. There is a lot of fighting and killing in this book, but these things are told almost as if they were technical tips about things one takes into account in the heat of battle. I don’t know what kind of experience French had, and I certainly know nothing about fighting myself, but he seems very persuasive in his descriptions of how battles and confrontations play out. He’s detailed on the armor and its purposes, but not tediously so. I think some of the ingenious siutations that come about must be the fruit of historical research–that he’s often retelling stories and bits and situations he’s taken and adopted for his own (he takes from Invanhoe, and maybe he was a latter day Walter Scot).

Allen French is good with character. His storytelling is rather like that of the Sagas, and indeed, his Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow is a retold Saga. He also did Grettir the Strong. It means the telling is sparse, terse, quick to get to the point, including no uncessesary details or detours. There is little of atmosphere as a result, oddly, for all that he gives you the sense that you understand Medieval characters better. There is no psychological moiling about, no externalized inner states. It is a very businesslike writing, taking the reader through what is necessary, no more.

One of his weaknesses is that he seems to take little joy in evocative expression. So one does not read his stories for the words, but for the people and their situation–for the tale itself. It is nothing more than caring about how things turn out for these characters rather than haunting prose or unimaginably compelling descriptions. His descriptions are rather detached, intelligent, logical–and when it comes to the details of battle, somewhat clinical, which helps squeamish persons such as myself. I would be put out by the precision of the blows struck but that his object is never to impress those on me as much as to be careful about how things happened. French is good at that, good at planning things, connecting reasons, exhibiting changes of mind, making the psychological progress of his characters obvious. All with bare, straightforward prose. And he knows when the right few words are striking.

The bad are punished, the repentant are forgiven, the worthy are admired, the vile despised, the simple acquire subtlety and are rewarded, and the foolish are reduced. The story is a comedy very obviously heading toward marriage, and that also is happily achieved. One wants these things in stories: a rightness in the conclusion that is more than a clever ending. And it is that the ending is more than clever that gives it its high emotional impact. It is right. One wants an ending that was worth all the ups and downs of the story, one that affects one strongly rather than weakly. If at the end of the book one is unambiguously glad one read it and has obtained food for thought, it is a good book, whatever its faults.

I’m ready for another one by him.

Education

Christopher Dawson has an excellent book called The Crisis of Western Education. In the last chapter he might be Richard Weaver in Ideas Have Consequences. As can be expected, the main part of the book is historical. Dawson explains the development and purpose throughout the ages of liberal education. He is as always sweeping and clear both, offering his usual scattering of offhand insights quite beside the excellent main point he’s trying to make. His purpose is to understand what education has been, what the contemporary situation is, and what can be done. It is an old book by now, but it doesn’t seem to me that it is dated. Dawson is one of those chaps like Scruton or Barfield or Lukacs or Weaver: will write with insight and impart understanding, and you’ll always be glad you read whatever it is he writes about.

Three More

As for George MacDonald, I think Chesterton’s essay says the most. I finished Donal Grant, which has a sad, vague ending. Sweet, sad ending, but a bit vague on resolution. It is rich in that mood, that light of Christian practice, but MacDonald needs more stalwart villains, and he cannot have them on his own terms. It is striking how much justice we want in our conclusions–at least me. Justice must be satisfied. Satisfaction has to do with justice; it must.

I had a tremendous literary experience with Storm of Steel. For all that the writer is a bit artless, his verbs are not always dead on, still he’s good enough and builds up to the climactic victory in which he reveals several things about war. You know how you are always reading in the Bible about these battles with such disproportionate losses? The victors lose a few but the vanquished loose a whole lot more. Junger suggests how it works by describing the elation of those who are prevailing, and how it saps and discourages the defeated. What he did for me was open up an understanding of how these emotions flow like tides through armies during the conflict. What else he says, and what makes his book great and leads to the conclusion, is the understated but undeniably present assertion that however terrible and devastating the calamities of war may be, victory is glorious and honor a reality whose light shines even in those awful desolations. I am not sure what the relationship of victory to glory really is. Perhaps one could say war is glorious, or can be glorious and so can victory, and as we know from Beowulf, so can defeat.

I’ve gotten a good way into Alan Jacobs (The Narnian) and I find he’s thought and mulled over things Lewis said in curious and out of the way places. I think he’s done that much more thinking than McGrath. I think his book is superior, and I’m enjoying it. Jacobs seems also to have read a lot of the parallel literature, to be more immersed in the sort of complimentary things such a biography requires. His stew has simmered longer over the flame of thought. I wish in the early chapters he had not five times said we will hear more of this or that later. Just hint at it without being so heavy handed. There is a bit of a clumsy hearty explaininess, but it is overcome by his saturation with and insight. You know what most surprises me? Lewis lost and then regained all his romanticism, and nobody really goes into that too much at all. It was a deep an important experience, it seems to me, and key. But they’d rather speculate around on things about which there really is nothing to go on. They’d rather talk about his conversion, but not that thing which made his Christianity so interesting. Still, Jacobs is pleasing. I’m pleased so far.

George MacDonald

George MacDonald wrote novels with good characters that are interesting. That, you know, is not so easy to achieve. MacDonald was held in high esteem back in the 19th century. Not so much today, but he is a better writer than I think he’s given credit for. Not only for his good characters, but also for his deft handling of descriptions and situations and many other things.

I’m doing Donal Grant on the recommendation of a friend here. He made the remark that he finds these books by MacDonald cleansing. I remember reading Phantastes with what Lewis said in mind: that he was thereby exposed to pure goodness (something like that). As I read Donal Grant, I sense there is a great mountain freshness of joy and contentment in what MacDonald presents, and this gladness of purity is, I think, the thing of which Lewis speaks.

MacDonald’s books are still being read and still being kept in print. He exerts a fascination still. I spoke with three people at church recently who have read MacDonald. In two of the conversations his anti-Calvinist views came up: he poses a dilemma. One of the persons I talked to did her MA thesis on MacDonald and said when she came to his views on the atonement she had to shut the book she was reading. So much does MacDonald draw us with a vision that is so good we do not even want to believe any wrong of him.

And he is good. Even people who will wonder if he’s a Christian will cleave to his books for good reasons, if with some misgivings. I myself have found his clear mountain air bracing. I enjoy the challenge of figuring out where exactly he’s coming from. I haven’t got a whole lot yet from him, but I have figured out that the abridged versions distort his theology somewhat. Probably not enough to avoid the problem, but enough to aggravate it and push clarity further away.

I think there are two basic things we love. One is the doctrine of original innocence, which is not entirely wrong. Yes, in Adam we all sinned, but it stands to reason that we are still haunted by the memory of that original innocence before the fall. It calls us to return—and we are made to want it, if only in the sense that we realize our loss. Death is the return to it, and MacDonald’s full of the atmosphere of good death.

Nobody taps into this original innocence like the tradition of Traherne, Wordsworth and here George MacDonald. The tradition of original innocence of which they found childhood more than representative is overdone; we recoil. But if it is only representative of what haunts not our personal but our racial memory, then I think it works. I think that’s why it wins us and why we do more than recoil. We don’t have to follow them as far as they go.

The second thing is that though the earth is cursed, it was first blessed. Besides the blessing, everything originally was made good. That goodness cannot be absolutely effaced as long as there’s something. And, actually, there’s much of it. Calvinists speak of common grace. I myself think it is a common goodness which is in the world due to how it has been made. This goodness isn’t simply good quality product, but is derived from its Creator. That is why we have a sense of it in myths of natural divinities, nature goddesses, etc. There is something suggesting divinity in the work of God just as there is Bachness in the work of Bach and Boschness in the work of Bosch. Something in the deep rooted goodness of creation suggests beyond it someone better.

But there is more. MacDonald was tainted by something that seems like old fashioned theological modernism. He was influenced by things he got from German romanticism (a good place to get ideas nonetheless). He affirmed that Christ’s death was a display of the love of God. But he denied it was anything else, and that’s the problem. What MacDonald had was not all right, but that is not to say it was all wrong.

Here’s what I think: his restricted view allowed him to see something that had been obstructed for him before—goodness and gladness not only allowed but also better explained. In the world that George MacDonald shows us we see something we desire: a benevolence working in all things the good of everybody absolutely. This is not altogether true, but it does hold for God’s people, for believers. The Apostle Paul says that. But what MacDonald presents is the world of believers only, and that’s not the real world, not the world the Apostle speaks of. Still, it is a real enough part of the world at present.

Does Calvinism have its grimmer, joyless corners? It did for MacDonald—and who will say that this effect was unique to him? There are terrible, relentless Calvinists who do not make of the mysteries of our religion wonders but instead make of them heavy awful things. And there are certainly heavy and awful things; but that is not exclusively what God is, yet that is what some relentless, terrible Calvinists seem to make of him and his ways. George MacDonald, it seems to me, reacted to that and went to the other extreme. Unfortunately, he refused to imagine God’s holy wrath in terms of justice. He seems to have imagined that God’s wrath is really God’s relentless and mastering love. He did not believe in eternal punishment except in theory because he believed that God’s will to bring all to repentance would not ultimately be thwarted. That is not too far from being Calvinism, except that it includes far more people than Calvinism will allow. (That probably makes him the only person ever who could say with integrity he was neither a Calvinist nor an Arminian; and yes, it does appear he said that.)

But he strongly believed in repentance, and he did not believe any would be saved unless he repented and was converted. With MacDonald’s view, conversion may not be so urgent—if you don’t repent now, you will eventually—but it is nevertheless necessary.

I think that’s what can save George MacDonald. There is a turning from idols to God, from sin in repentance to faith in the forgiveness Christ offers. He does not explain adequately how that atonement works, but is it necessary to understand how it works in order to believe that it works? The tougher question is: what did MacDonald’s deliberate refusal mean? Atonement without justice? It may be wishful thinking on my part, but I do think at that point inconsistency may have saved him: can he have said that God is not just? He can have implied it, but I don’t think he meant to. Would he say God punishes sin? Yes. With hell? Yes. It’s just he’d say God always does it with remedial rather than punitive motives. That is, but isn’t just. It has to do with his view of God’s skill which is pretty high (i.e. omnipotence). It does leave the atonement sadly sagging.

It would be easier if MacDonald had not been willing to suffer for his convictions. He suffered like a Calvinist, convinced in God’s sovereign disposal of all things for the good of his elect. And he suffered for his inadequate views of the atonement . . . here’s the thing: for the sake of principle. It was compromise and comfort, or conviction and reproach. He chose the latter. Money, pleasure and power cannot have moved him to take his stand. At least we ought to say he was a deep one. I doubt he suffered for his view of the atonement alone–I think it is more of a package deal, if that’s any mitigation.

MacDonald shows us something like the lighted side of that great pillar of fire by night, not the Egyptian side (and that’s an important part of it). His view is of the world for the believer in that light, and the light shining through it is the light of Christ on his people. His characters are also luminous with that light, and we love them because they show us Christ’s goodness and mercy and tender severity with his own.

What is the fascination in the depths of all depths? What is it in the deepest researches of all things that makes all of creation interesting? Creation’s Creator, that’s what. And in the case of George MacDonald’s characters, not their creator’s character, though that’s part of it, but beyond that it is the view of Christ we get. It is not what Christ did for us, much as it means for our conversion, that serves to guide us and point us in the way of righteousness, it is what he showed us in the loveliness of his obedience. I mean that in the sense that we cannot emulate our Savior in his once-for-all death, but we can in the example of his life and character. That, I think, is what George MacDonald helps us with.

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Feel free to point out any gaps I didn’t anticipate. I’d welcome it.

Four Chaps

There were two men, of all the men of that century, brought together in my awareness by influences upon me and my interests: T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis. One was classical, the other romantic. One served Apollo and the other Dionysius. But even to say it is to note that this really is not it, though it is true enough.

I wonder, trying to sort out a difference between then, was that the great difference. Groping, I want to say that Eliot was somehow more public-minded. I don’t think that’s entirely off, but I don’t think it expresses exactly the difference. Can I say Lewis had no interest in helping the public?

So what is it then? (It is probably that I do not know enough, but let me keep groping–that is after all the whole point of this blog.)

I think private judgment counted for more with Lewis. When he set out to write fiction, he set out to provide the world with more of the things he wished it had, that he liked. When Eliot set out to write poetry, he did not want to give it more of something he wished it had in the same way. It is a mistake to assume that Eliot utters private statements, to read too much of his tortured biography into his works–in the sense of taking his work as just a putting on display what has happened to himself. He was more public-minded in the sense that he wanted to speak for many. And he spoke for his age.

Lewis spoke in his age, but he did not speak for his age. And perhaps there I’ve managed to put my finger on something. It shows how great was Eliot’s achievement in speaking to his age in the voice that speaks for his age. Plenty have spoken in the voice of the age and said nothing. Plenty speak to the age with the sound of their own private stream (curious, delightful, mordant, useful, many things). I think that’s what Lewis did, who had no qualms about speaking of himself and did so more than once. And he wished to speak to a lot more than for. But Eliot’s voice is the voice of many waters and so it commands particular attention, speaking for his age first and then speaking to it.

It seems to me like the difference between Donne and Herbert. Herbert retires, gives up what he could achieve in the world. Donne never does that, never gives that ambition up, hoping in a public way to be useful. I don’t get the sense that Eliot felt the same way as Donne, that he all his life pursued advancement and public place; you can’t characterize Donne’s life as a successful struggle for resignation which is what can be said of Eliot’s. But Eliot spoke with the voice of his age, just as Donne did.

Did Donne? I think so–though mine is not informed enough to rise above opinion. Is not his voice the Jacobean voice? His expression that of the sensibility of his age? Does not his age speak in his sermons and meditations, the man who had a life-size drawing of himself wrapped in his shroud made not long before he died? You know what they did with that drawing? Had it carved and set in St. Paul’s cathedral where you can still find it today.

Didn’t Herbert, then? No. Of course, any man who speaks in his time speaks with the sound and style of his time. So did Lewis. But Herbert speaks in the private way and not the public way. His sensibility is less centered in his times than is Donne’s. He is more peripheral to his age than Donne. Nobody made of his eccentricities a monument as if those eccentricities said something about them all the way they did with Donne.

Nor would Eliot have been pleased at such for himself. There is, you know, a statue of Lewis in Belfast. Doesn’t the very idea sound wrong? His memorial is a series of books for children which will be read as long as there are reading humans on this planet. It may last longer, that memorial and even the memory. Because for Eliot to be remembered, you need a higher learning and an audience better prepared.

The Last Verses

Luke begins the gospel in wonder. The wonder of the incarnation is felt in the astonishment of those participating, in their poetry and song, in the pronunciation of Gabriel: is anything too wonderful for God?

Luke also ends in wonder. The astonishment of the discovery, the unwillingness to believe out of sorrow and dullness of heart is turned into an inability to believe of sheer overabundant joy. And there is the amazing suggestion when this risen Jesus who proves he is no ghost, who eats and is touched disappears, appears out of nowhere, and then rises into the clouds. Luke that way, obliquely, suggests with delicate precision that the wonder begun in the incarnation has not stopped with the incarnation; the resurrection has deepened it, opened up a whole new world of wonder. The incarnation was just the doorway. What lies beyond the resurrection is promised to, hinted at, and awaited by these men who to the death believe that nothing is too wonderful for God.

The Way the Story Unfolds

A curious even at Emmaus, that Sunday. Jesus made known in that social and to them familiar act. Jesus the creator of wheat, Jesus the provider for all creatures, Jesus the Bread of Life known in the breaking of the bread.

Luke deliberately choses to make us observers, telling us from the beginning that it was Jesus on the road. We do not participate in the discovery of these disciples the way we did with the women because Luke has blown Jesus’ cover early in the story. But that master storyteller knows what he is doing. Look at the way he brings an odd, pictorial memory into literary description by making the readers observers and not participants in the experience. Had he told us that Jesus had a peculiar way of breaking bread, then told us this person broke the bread with that peculiarity, it would not have worked. It would have lent itself to sentimentality at best, felt contrived at worst.

Instead, Luke anticipated and suggests. He suggests to us there was a peculiar way Jesus had of breaking bread, because it is not the exposition for all that it causes their hearts to burn, but rather this action at the end, and repeated in their report in Jerusalem, that pierces the veil of grief, foolish unbelief and slowness of heart.

And the literary expectation, the anticipation is there, another facet of that profound event when Jesus said: this do in remembrance of me.