Narnia to the Rescue

When thinking about the Platonic and Neoplatonic interest in the world of the mind it seems to me that the mistake modern people make is to think of world of the mind as a metaphor. To some degree this is true, it is like the world, but it is not the physical world. But it is also wrong to think this way, as if the world of physical appearances were for them the indisputable baseline of reality.

When these thinkers think of the world of the mind, they are thinking about something they believe to exist in a less diffuse way. It is the reality of which the world of appearances is a shadow; the world of the mind exists in a more permanent way. The realities of the mind are reasonably more real than the realities of appearance, not being mutable. In order to understand them we must appreciate that they are thinking of the world of the mind as something intelligent people long for and can be satisfied with. And to them, the world of the mind, that place of intellectual satisfaction, is exactly and truly what Narnia represents.


A Curious Outcome

Are you keeping busy?

What if you were to answer the question by saying, No, why should I? Do you think I’m a slave that I should work all the time? If you were to say that, people would think you are lazy.

If you think about it, we believe we ought to be busy. It is a way we Americans have of bragging about how we are proper persons, or even, when we say it happily, to announce our own importance: I’m so busy!

It is entirely contrary to the attitude of late antiquity. Leisure for the leisured occupations of leisure was the ideal then. You retired, you contemplated, you proceeded without pressures, anxieties, or stress. You inherited wealth, were adopted into wealth, married into wealth, and then you attained to the enviable leisure to pursue an examined life. If you were limited in terms of wealth, you limited yourself so as to avoid needing too much, and thus you achieved some of that rare, valued leisure. If you were busy, you lived an unexamined life, and the unexamined life was the life of a slave.

The transformation of that attitude is a curious thing, if I have it right. Let me attempt to sketch it. I begin with the Benedictine rule, which was formulated to make monasticism bearable, but still rigorous. The ideal of martyrdom was gradually transformed into the ideal of withdrawing from the world as toleration and official recognition came to Christianity. The monastic withdrawal was about a Christian ideal, it was an attempt to preserve an ideal in different circumstances. The Benedictine rule also included a counter-cultural value: the humility of manual labor. Monks were to be obedient, submissive, praying routinely and working to provide for themselves. The point of including work was not simply to provide for the monastery, but also to promote Christian humility.

Such was the depth to which the territories of the former empire fell that the world, in that moment, came after the church, which sought to preserve its treasured ideal in the monasteries. Of course there’s more to it than that, but the role of the monasteries in preserving, informing, and eventually resurrecting civilization in Europe is indisputable. Polygamous barbarian warlords wanted the sanction of the only remaining think still associated with a glorious, past civilization.

As society changed, monasticism reformed. Not only did monasticism decline and require reform, monasticism changed, adapted itself to the conditions on which it exerted influence that is might further influence those conditions. The Cluniac reform with its novelty of houses in hierarchical relationship, its networks along the routes connecting all of Europe to the central shrine in Santiago de Compostela, knit the territories together and provided a common identity, one that arose from monasteries. The Cistercian reform was the impulse to grow, seeking the frontiers, seeking deliberate hardship in simplicity, expanding not only territory, but turning the ideal of the spiritual life gradually from ritual toward preaching, toward rational investigation and discourse. This impulse to learning is seen in the amazing twelfth century, with the cathedral schools leading to the unity in diversity of the university, a microcosm of a society growing complex and inquiring. As well, you got the first manual of preaching, the concern to take the monastic revolution in preaching beyond the walls of the monastery and into the cathedral pulpit, to benefit the swelling crowds of the growing cities.

Now come the preaching orders, monks without monasteries, friars, rather than monks, though they were awfully monastic, devoted to improving the quality of the Christianity of a Christian society. Christianity had been put behind walls to preserve it from the world, and now it emerged from those walls to inform the world, to shape and guide it. After this the impulse to reform—which one might say is monasticism—was seen in the spiritual, the more fervent correction of these same preaching orders. Savonarola did not end well, but he tried his best to turn Florence into a devout, city-wide monastery. All along, it seems to me, you have the monastery which gave Europe its cohesive identity going out of itself, spilling beyond its walls, sending persons forth to continue the transformation and remaking society in the form of its ideal. And all the while the notion of the indignity of work, work as an affliction and humiliation, was also being transformed.

Because now we come the Via Modena, the Brethren of the Common Life. This looked an awful lot like monasticism for laymen. It was a precursor of Protestantism, the educator of many a humanist, and it was the beginning of the abandonment of the ideal of poverty which the Reformers so much reviled. All along, poverty had been a problem for monks—they kept getting prosperous and indolent, and the reforming impulse always called them back to that. The culmination of that reforming impulse for us Protestants, the Reformation, did not.

Cluny was a successful enterprise, and it prospered the way a good business does; and it ushered in the Cistercian reaction toward simplicity of place and the simplicity not only of life, but also of liturgy, which forced preaching into greater eminence. The Cistercians are still remembered for their ingenuity, for their own inadvertent prosperity.

The ideal of poverty was taken to its greatest limit in the mendicant orders (and the Reformers abolished in their cities not only religious but also secular, vagrant mendicancy). These were they whose labor was entirely intellectual, never strictly physical. They begged long before they lifted a finger to work, though they turned pages readily enough. There is nothing more medieval than a mendicant friar, and yet what could be more classical it its adherence to leisure for the sake of study, and less protestant? Still, what could be less classical in its concern to instruct the average man, and more protestant?

With the New Devotion the use of labor takes on new dignity. We are very close to saying here that to work is to pray. It is devotion for everyman and fully self-supporting. Consider further that when the monasteries of England were closed, the liquor industry began a new age, as the brewing and distilling monks had to scramble for means of income. And Protestantism was as industrious in education as the mendicant orders, continuing the impulse of reform not only beyond the walls of the monasteries, but in a new society entirely devoid of monasteries. So you get a concept of the Christian life in which working is no longer something that humbles you, but it is something virtuous, a part of a healthy Christian life.

You put the concept in the meat grinder of monasticism, the concept that work is for slaves, and you do it to humble and afflict yourself. But when it comes out at the other end, the way European Civilization did, in a Protestant work ethic, the notion is now that we are made to work and that we ought to be busy, to keep active. It went from indignity to a far-reaching, all-embracing dignity, didn’t it? I find it a curious thing, and for some reason it makes me think of this passage: Luke 17:7-10.

But who is there of you, having a servant plowing or keeping sheep, that will say unto him, when he is come in from the field, Come straightway and sit down to meat; and will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink? Doth he thank the servant because he did the things that were commanded? Even so ye also, when ye shall have done all the things that are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants; we have done that which it was our duty to do.


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

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

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

by Walter de la Mare

Between Phenomena

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

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

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

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

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

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

Explaining the Reformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ahlstrom Vintage

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

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

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

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

A un poeta menor de la antología

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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