Sunday, May 12, 2013

Thank God for Sin

There, I got your attention, didn't I?  No, God does not want you to sin.  But even more than He does not want you to sin, He wants you to be free to act and think according to your own will, which is why He created you in his image and likeness in the first place and not as a puppet or robot.  Ideally, of course, He wants us to will with Him what He wills for us (unity with Him in love), but He wants us to do so freely, not under compulsion.  Which means that He created us free to go against his will, free, that is, to do whatever we want, whether it hurts or heals us, whether it brings us life or death.

Augustine put it perhaps most vividly (as Augustine so often did): "Suppose God came and spoke to us here in his own voice (he never ceases to speak through his scriptures [per litteras suas], of course). But now, imagine that he is here and saying to one of you, 'Do you want to sin? All right, go ahead, then: sin. Do anything that gives you pleasure. Anything that you love on earth shall be yours. You are angry with someone? Fine: let him die. You want to lay violent hands on someone? He is yours to seize. If you want to hit someone, you can hit him. If you want someone condemned, condemned he shall be. Whatever you want for yourself, you shall possess it. No one is to oppose you, no one is to say to you, "What are you doing?" No one will say to you, "Don't do that." No one will say, "Why did you do it?" All the earthly things you crave shall be yours in abundance. You shall live to enjoy them not just for a time but always. But there is just one reservation: you will never see my face.'"

Augustine, of course, is also largely responsible for the theory of original sin: that somehow, once Adam and Eve had freely done what they wanted and disobeyed God, their descendents were all infected with this sin, so that even if we wanted to will the good, we no longer could without grace.   And, to be sure, even medieval theologians found this theory a little difficult to swallow.  What about the babies who died before they could be baptized?  What about all those not born in Christendom who never had a chance to be baptized because no Christians had yet brought them the sacrament?  But, important as they are, these are corner cases, distractions from the principal issue: why is it that even when we think we want to turn toward God and live according to his will for us, we can't?  What makes it so hard to live without sin?  The fall makes a good metaphor for why it is so hard, but it still doesn't quite explain why God let Adam and Eve and, therefore, everyone else turn away from him into corruption and death in the first place.

Here's what Augustine suggested, by way of Peter Lombard:  "WHY GOD ALLOWED HUMANS TO BE TEMPTED, KNOWING THAT THEY WOULD FALL.  AUGUSTINE, IN ON GENESISMoreover, it is usual to ask 'why God allowed humans to be tempted, whom he foreknew would be led astray. --But it would not be praiseworthy for human beings, if they could live well only because none would persuade them to live evilly, since, in their nature, they had the power and, in the power, the will, with the help of God, not to consent to the persuader'; 'and it is more glorious not to consent than to be unable to be tempted'." Augustine, still via Peter, goes on to explain that God created "those he foreknew would be evil" in the first place "because he foresaw that he would draw some good from their evils."**  But--I can hear you asking--why not just create us so that we did nothing but good?  Why create us if He knew that we would mess everything up? What good did God foresee He would draw from the evil of sin?  In a word: freedom.  "It is more glorious not to consent than to be unable to be tempted."  It is more glorious to be able to sin than it is not to be able to sin.  It is more glorious to be able to fail than not to be able to fail at all.

In other words, God did not want us to be automata or slaves.  Sure, God could have created beings who did everything perfectly, everything exactly according to his will.  In fact, He did: we call them planets and stars.  But He created us in his likeness and image, which means, with the ability to choose how to think and behave, not because He does not hate sin, but because He loves virtue more, and virtue coerced is not virtue, but slavery.  G.K. Chesterton put it with characteristic verve: "The free man owns himself.  He can damage himself with either eating or drinking; he can ruin himself with gambling.  If he does he is certainly a damn fool, and he might possibly be a damned soul; but if he may not, he is not a free man any more than a dog."***  Not everyone is comfortable with this.  How many times have you thought to yourself how much better it would be if somehow we (our society, our culture, our government) could keep people from doing anything bad?  Wouldn't that be great?  Wouldn't it be wonderful to live in a world in which no one ever willed anything evil?  Wouldn't it be wonderful if...oh, let's see...there were a law against damaging ourselves with eating or drinking or ruining ourselves with gambling so that no one could ever do him- or herself harm?  Oddly, God didn't think so, otherwise He would never have allowed us to be tempted in the first place, now would He?  For some reason, God thinks freedom is more important than guaranteeing we all behave exactly as He wants us to.  Now that's something truly to be thankful for, don't you think?

*Augustine of Hippo (d. 430), Expositions of the Psalms 121-150, Exposition of Psalm 127, trans. Maria Boulding (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2004), pp. 105-6.
**Peter Lombard, The Sentences: Book 2. Creation, dist. 23, c. 1, nn. 1-2, trans. Giulio Silano (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2008), p. 104.
***I am not sure that I agree here with Chesterton that the opposite of a free man is a dog.  Dogs have a freedom of their own.  We will return to the question of animal souls in a future post!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Getting Medieval

Almost everything you've been taught about the Middle Ages is wrong.  I know this, you know this, and yet somehow the myths persist.  And I don't mean the usual stuff that everyone knows is wrong but insists on reiterating because it makes us feel good--stuff like people believing the earth was flat or that knights' armor was so heavy they couldn't get on their horses without a winch.  No, I mean the stuff that even professors think we know, but, again, not just the stuff that we argue over professionally, like whether there was such a thing as "feudalism" or why people went on crusade.

Simply having a period that we study called "the Middle Ages" is wrong, for reasons that many of us appreciate but can't quite allow ourselves to acknowledge.  Sure, we say things about how modernity depends upon its medieval Other in order to conceptualize itself (I'm not kidding, we do), and we wring our hands over whether we have confessed medieval studies' debt to the great -isms of the nineteenth century (nationalism, confessionalism, Westernism--okay, I made that last one up, but if it isn't a word, it should be) with sufficient abjection.  But in the end we always come back to the label because it makes us feel safe.  We may know that there was no such thing as "the Middle Ages," but we need them to be there, safely Other, safely romanticized and grotesque, even as we try to stifle the sneaking suspicion that perhaps it is we who are the ones fooling ourselves about how enlightened and pragmatic we are.

But much more is at stake here than whether we think the Church militant (as it called itself in those days) was wrong to insist that its clergy be celibate (and male) or that Christians be properly educated in the elements of their faith and, if they weren't, that something should be done about it (like sending out inquisitors to make sure they didn't believe ridiculous things like that the earth was flat or that God was a malevolent creator), even if sex and diversity are all we care about today.  Medieval Christians knew things that we don't anymore, things about God and Scripture and creation and history, things that we in our enlightened, critical scholarship simply can't see and, therefore, insist could never have been there and that we were right to forget.

No, I am not about to go all Weberian and start talking about the disenchantment of the world.  This isn't about rationalism vs. mysticism or science vs. belief.  This is about the very roots of reality as we experience it, where such dichotomies don't so much break down as fuse, mysticism becoming rational and science revealing itself as dependent upon belief.  Medieval Christians knew that contemplation (by which they meant seeing God, whether affectively or intellectively) began with study and understanding, that is, reason; likewise, they knew that science (by which they meant what we would call studying the natural world) began with the belief that the natural world was a creature of God and therefore made in such a way that it could be understood, as the Scriptures put it, "in measure and number and weight" (Wisdom 11:21).  It is not that modernity is more secular and bureaucratic than the Middle Ages (the Middle Ages, more specifically, the Church invented bureaucracy in the sense of clerks and institutional record-keeping, and "secular" simply means "of this age," the saeculum of time as opposed to eternity).  Rather, it is that modernity believes only in itself and its righteousness without questioning why it should have such beliefs.

Perhaps that's a bit strong, but let's play with it a bit.  Once upon a time (or just yesterday, as G.K. Chesterton tells it*), there was an estate in England known as Prior's Park, which (as a certain historical enthusiast discovered in his researches) used to be called Prior's Farm, named, not as the romantic might want to believe, after an actual prior, but rather after some local Mr. Prior, much as one might call a place Podger's after Mr. Podger.  As the researcher Mr. Haddow explained to the artistic Mr. Crane as they wandered about the estate,
"The very name of this place, Prior's Park, makes everybody think of it as a moonlit medieval abbey; I dare say the spiritualists by this time have discovered the ghost of a monk there.  But, according to the only authoritative study of the matter I can find, the place was simply called Prior's as any rural place is called Podger's.  It was the house of a Mr. Prior, a farmhouse, probably, that stood here at some time or other and was a local landmark.  Oh, there are a great many examples of the same thing, here and everywhere else.  This suburb of our used to be a village, and because some of the people slurred the name and pronounced it Holliwell, many a minor poet indulged in fancies about a Holy Well, with spells and fairies and all the rest of it, filling the suburban drawing-rooms with the Celtic twilight.  Whereas anyone acquainted with the facts knows that 'Hollinwall' simply means 'the hole in the wall,' and probably referred to some quite trivial accident."
But as Mr. Haddow himself knew perfectly well (and used to murderous effect), there had been a priory on the land and there was a holy well, which the last prior of the community guarded with his life against the Tudor usurpers of the estate, only to be flung into it and buried, along with the memories of the well.  The well was covered over with an artificial lake, much "as the Roman Emperor built a temple to Venus on the Holy Sepulchre" (the comparison is Horne Fisher's, the protagonist in the story) so as "to desecrate it with a heathen goddess."  Why, then, had the well been forgotten, even though the name was still there?

Fisher explains to Mr. Crane:
"Look here; I'll tell you if you like, but I'm afraid it involves an introduction.  You've got to understand one of the tricks of the modern mind, a tendency that most people obey without noticing it.  In the village or suburb outside there's an inn with the sign of St. George and the Dragon.  Now suppose I went about telling everybody that this was only a corruption of King George and the Dragoon.  Scores of people would believe it, without any inquiry, from a vague feeling that it's probable because it's prosaic.  It turns something romantic and legendary into something recent and ordinary.  And that somehow makes it sound rational, though it is unsupported by reason.  Of course some people would have the sense to remember having seen St. George in old Italian pictures and French romances, but a good many wouldn't think about it at all.  They would just swallow the skepticism because it was skepticism.  Modern intelligence won't accept anything on authority.  But it will accept anything without authority.  That's exactly what happened here.  When some critic or other chose to say that Prior's Park was not a priory, but was named after some quite modern man named Prior, nobody really tested the theory at all."
The same thing (which is ultimately Chesterton's point throughout all his works) has happened with Christianity and therefore with everything that we think we know about the Christian past, particularly its medieval past.  We believe all sorts of prosaic things about what people believed--and project onto them our own obsessions (e.g. about diversity and sex)--never once pausing to question our skepticism, so convinced are we that our view of the world and of its history is the more probable one.  And, no, I don't mean whether we have the chronology of creation right, only whether we have been as right as we vaguely feel we are to read the human past in the way that we do.  And so we dismiss out of hand the possibility that perhaps medieval Christians knew what they were talking about when, for example, they claimed that their traditions were older than Plato and Aristotle or that Mary, as Wisdom, had been created at the beginning of the world (cf. Proverbs 8:22-31).**  We want things to be more recent and ordinary, not romantic and legendary, and so we ignore what our sources tell us their authors thought was true and overlay them with legends of our own making, grounded not (as we tell ourselves) in reason or (as is more often the case) in authority, but in skepticism for the sake of skepticism.

This is why almost everything that you have been taught about the Middle Ages is wrong: it is a story of holy wells and priors that has been told as a story of Mr. Prior and the hole in the wall.  But the hole in the wall was never there--while the holy well was.

*"The Hole in the Wall," in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1922).
**Now, there, aren't you curious?

Monday, April 22, 2013

A Psalm for Earth Day


Praise ye the Lord from the heavens!
Praise ye him in the high places!
Praise ye him, all his angels!
Praise ye him, all his hosts!
Praise ye him, O sun and moon!
Praise him, all ye stars and light!
Praise him, ye heavens of heavens,
and let all the waters that are above the heavens praise the name of the Lord,
for he spoke, and they were made;
he commanded, and they were created.
He hath established them for ever and for ages of ages;
he hath made a decree,
and it shall not pass away.

Praise the Lord from the earth,
ye dragons and all ye deeps,
fire, hail, snow, ice, stormy winds, which fulfil his word,
mountains and all hills,
fruitful trees and all cedars,
beasts and all cattle,
serpents and feathered fowls,
kings of the earth and all people,
princes and all judges of the earth,
young men and maidens!
Let the old with the younger praise the name of the Lord,
for his name alone is exalted.

The praise of him is above heaven and earth,
and he hath exalted the horn of his people,
a hymn to all his saints,
to the children of Israel,
a people approaching to him.


--Psalm 148, Douay-Rheims translation