Late Medieval Religion

There was once a certain knight, whose castle stood upon a highway and who mercilessly robbed passing travelers. Despite his conduct he nevertheless maintained his pious daily prayers to the Blessed Virgin. One day, when it was the turn of a certain holy monk to be stripped by this knight’s henchmen, the victim demanded a personal interview with his oppressor, saying he had certain secrets to communicate. Taken inside the castle he asked the knight to assemble his whole household, yet when the knight so obliged him the monk declared that one of its members had absented himself from the assembly. A check revealed that the missing member was a serving man who, when at last located and brought before the monk, proceeded to behave as one insane. Finally he admitted he was no real man but a demon in human guise, who for fourteen years had served the knight by special order of the Devil. The latter had commanded him to watch for the day when his master failed to salute the Virgin in prayer; whenever this fatal moment of neglect should occur, the demon servant would be free to kill the knight and drag his wicked soul to perdition. So far, though ignorant of his precarious situation, the knight had never allowed his devotions to lapse. Now learning the truth he was dully appalled and hurled himself in repentance at the feet of the monk, who commanded the demon to vanish and to trouble the Virgin’s devotees no more. With reverence and thanks the knight permitted his saintly deliverer to go free and thenceforth he changed his own life for the better.

-A. G. Dickens, The English Reformation, 25

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Extracurricular

I had never read while in a swimming pool before, but now I have. I read in the bathtub all the time, of course. It is a good way to spend an hour, and most wholesome. This morning I was able to read in a hot tub. It’s more splashy, but if you’re reading one of your own books you can do it. The pool can be perfectly dry—for the book in question.

I enjoyed the last chapter of Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant that way. Anthony Powell’s novels are not long, but they are only divided into four or five chapters, which it is best to do without enormous interruptions. I do not know what general status he has as a writer. I find that what he does is humorous, melancholy and wise, and I think that if it provides wisdom, then in some way it must be literary—not just an interesting story. A Dance to the Music of Time is aptly named. Characters enter and depart, re-enter predictably as in a dance, but changed by time. Powell permits himself reflections, once a book or so, and these help you understand what he’s doing. I find the cumulative effect is working on me, and I look forward to each chapter and each of these nine volumes.

More conventional settings await my science fiction. The Lost Fleet has some interesting insights, and I hope his writing will improve as I advance in his long series. I find that reading a mediocre writer is useful because one can think of the mistakes. And there are things he does well. As well, I have The Expanse, which has returned me to science fiction with renewed enthusiasm, for which I’m grateful. The Expanse, I find, is irresistible.

Unintended

Nevertheless, along this path of biblical study lay some yawning pits into which hapless Christians did not fail to stumble. Too many readers, both educated and uneducated, would not be satisfied to present their conclusions as reasonable hypotheses or as starting-points for fresh thought and investigation. Instead, the old demon of the medieval schools reappeared in more insidious guise—the spiritual pride which, even when faced by the obscurer problems of theology, worked through cocksure ratiocination to precise verbal definition, through counter-dogma to counter-persecution. Offered a vision of the free, the enquiring, the charitable, the tentative and modest mind, they turned their backs upon it an entered a prison cell not very dissimilar to the one they had just left. It began to appear that the Spirit of Truth had denied infallibility to the successors of St. Peter, to Aristotle, to the metaphysicians of Paris, only to bestow this wonderful gift upon the theologians of Zurich, Geneva, or Cambridge. Revolutions seldom make large immediate contributions to the liberty of man. If the Reformation in the end augmented our spiritual liberty, it did so slowly and by devious ways which many of its original champions could neither have anticipated nor desired.

A. G. Dickens, The English Reformation, 159-60

Mystery and Theology

Theological discourse is always threatened by the intrusion of irrationality. As far as I can tell (not being a particularly acute theologian, but aspiring to competence), one of the most important things theologians do is draw the line where mystery begins. Distinguishing between what is mysterious and what is irrational is difficult. Still, to confuse the two seems to me fatal, and one of the big problems that has to be addressed in this debate about Classic Theism.

God is mysterious, he must be. But that God reveals himself means that he is not altogether mysterious. The problem with drawing the line between what we can know and understand and what we cannot is a crucial one. We are, in a way, tracing the upper boundaries of human reason. At what point does our finite capacity meet something greater? When it comes to God, soon. And if you say that we can know what in fact we cannot, you are a rationalist. The result is that you will domesticate God.

If, on the other hand, you say we cannot know what we in fact can, you are making things harder than they should be. And you’re degrading what is mysterious in an effort to preserve it. That is when you introduce the irrational. If something is not really mysterious but you insist that it is, then the effect of such mislabeling is not to dignify something lesser with greater status, but to abuse the lesser and to degrade the greater category. To abuse knowledge is to become unknowing, to abuse understanding is to misunderstand, and to abuse reason is to be irrational. Mystery is not irrationality, though distinguishing them is not always easy.

Long ago . . .

It occurs to me that in this convergence of views in the direction of what is called ‘modified classical theism’ there is the makings of a theology for the ‘big tent’ of evangelicalism, a formula for providing space for the various disparate theological elements that go to make up modern evangelicalism, – de-confessionalized Reformed congregations, Wesleyan, Pentecostalist, and so on. Here is a theology that says that God is other than his creation but he is equally – in a parallel way – in the creation, There is little or no need to resort to metaphor, simile and accommodation to interpret biblical language about God – literalism will suffice. It can be treated not as ‘pretty packaging’ of revealed truth but as the literal truth about God in time and space. Is that fanciful?  But is not such a theology troubled by incoherence? No more that the various ecclesiastical elements jostling under the  Big Top present consistencies to the watching world (if, that is, the world is watching.) I do not mean that any, and certainly not all, the contributors to this series on neoclassical-theism intends their theologising in this way.  But then human history, including church history, is filled with unintended consequences.

Paul Helm

Dauntless, by Jack Campbell

Dauntless (The Lost Fleet, #1)John Geary, the character in whose head the story takes place, is the heroic survivor of an ancient space battle. Having stayed behind to make sure his companions could escape, and he then was frozen in a space pod for a century. He has been rescued just before the book begins. As the book progresses, he learns more and more how different he is from the space navy of his generation’s descendants. One of the great things about this book is that while it recognizes technological progress, it does not assume cultural or intellectual progress. In fact, the main problem the lead character has to deal with is the degeneration of discipline and the toll that this takes on implementing more sophisticated strategy and better tactics.

The book opens after a huge military blunder that strands Geary’s people’s fleet deep in enemy territory. Negotiations result in the treasonous death of the fleet’s admiral, who’s last act, the first sequence of the book, is to anoint Geary his heir. Geary is a legend of distorted enormity, he is senior to anyone living, and, reluctantly dutiful, takes command. He has to rescue his stranded fleet by running, fighting at opportune moments, and making sure weapons and provisions are somehow scavenged along the way.

The book is structured around three encounters with the enemy, and these are the high points of Jack Campbell’s action. Around these encounters the readers gets the revelations of the challenges, the decisions Geary is faced with, and the problems of leadership that are the author’s main concern. Geary faces a military that runs on pride, impulsive courage and aggression, rather than honor, discipline and intelligent strategy. He also faces a fiercely independent set of subordinates who (1) believe he is a legend and not a man, (2) fight on impulse rather than reflection, and (3) whose ability to follow orders needs to be coaxed, negotiated and corrected.

The strength of the book is in demonstrating how much honor counts, how discipline and careful, wise leadership are important, and why the old should be in charge of the young. In fact, it is a strange and refreshingly old school approach to science fiction that Jack Campbell gives us. It is appreciated because there are no pornographic interludes, no pathology of ideology, and it is strange because the swearing is strictly limited to the words ‘damn’, ‘hell’ and ‘ancestors’. Ancestors? Geary has some kind of American Indian cloaking device for his belief in transcendence, afterlife, prayer and guidance.

We are approaching the weaknesses of this book. A science fiction book with religion? Yes, but it is very thin. It is more sneaked in than really present, and that is a disappointment. Also, the swearing is unconvincing. So who cares that it is? Isn’t it good that there is so little you almost don’t mention it? These things have to be judged by their effects, because that is how everything in art is judged. The effect is also unconvincing, and that is more dire (in terms of poesis) than indicting him for having a foul mouth. If you are going to project American Naval officers and Marines on the future, watering them down is gratuitous. If you need a future in which obscenity and profanity are diminished, then you need to have a rationale for it: a prevailing galactic puritanism or some other plausible (!) explanation.

These two weaknesses are not unconnected to the great, main weakness: badly executed characters. We live in the head of John Geary to the point of getting explanations of confusing action supplied by internal monologue. The effect is preposterous. It is obvious that Campbell is telling because showing has not worked. It is the opposite of a good story— especially since it is done at the height of the action. People don’t calmly offer detailed explanations in clear, complete sentence dialogue with themselves in moments of intense stress. Not believably, not without irony, at least. His characters are weak because his story-telling is badly executed.

My conclusion is that Campbell has a good strategy and bad tactics. If strategy is the overall thinking and positioning, the overall plot and aims, then that is well done. If tactics is how that is carried out in the details, that is where he fails. The devil is in the details, alas! Of course, this is only the first novel, though I do not believe it is his very first altogether. He’s written many more. So I’m interested, and I hope his tactics improve. I do like his strategy.

Coda

I went to Barnes & Noble to look at James S. A. Corey’s new book, Persepolis Rising. I read only a chapter. I was engrossed. It was so much better in terms of storytelling. Much more compelling, much superior at guiding the reader, immediately creating suspense, immediacy through crucial and careful detail, everything. The character whose point of view was assumed was a homosexual sociopath who is disappointed because he can’t inject himself with some untested molecule that will turn him into superman. It was amazing! It was, alas, much better than Campbell’s honorable, upstanding captain. Not because Campbell’s person cannot be interesting, but because Corey’s persons are so much more deftly handled. The guys behind Corey are much more masters of their craft than Campbell.