Second Meditation: On Beauty

Note: This is just a series of loose thoughts written out more or less as they come, presented in the hopes that someone will find something worthwhile within them. 

Our society despises beauty. This may sound surprising, given how much we hear about overvaluing of physical appearance, impossible beauty standards in media, and the rest of it, but that sort of thing isn’t an overvaluing of beauty, but an extension of our bonobo-like obsession with sex; it is ‘hotness’ we value, not beauty. Granted, beauty and sexual attraction, in women, often overlap, but they aren’t the same thing.

Once this distinction is clear in our mind, examples and proofs pile up almost faster than we can describe them. Female fashions are designed to emphasize and draw attention to the bodily form, as opposed to earlier fashions which were meant to adorn it. Compare a woman’s frock from the 1930s, with its patterned dress and accompanying hats with a modern body-hugging dress or pants. It isn’t just a matter of being more or less revealing, but a matter of how much the dress itself was meant to look pretty compared to how much it was meant to draw the eye to the woman’s body (this distinction occurred to me watching an episode of All Creatures Great and Small, where I realized that the dress of the protagonist’s wife was doing something very different than a modern dress would).

Also, if our culture valued beauty as such, we would prize it in our art, architecture, music, and so on. We do not. This is almost a truism; no one looks at modern architecture or modern art and praises it for its beauty. Even people who like the stuff like it for other reasons. In architecture we either go for bland utilitarianism or self-indulgent absurdism.

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This is supposed to be a Cathedral, by the way.

 

We further denigrate beauty with grotesque blasphemies such as “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” trying to render the whole thing subjective, either in an excuse to provide poor work or out of misguided compassion (looking at you, Mr. Serling).

All of this, as I see it, is a concerted effort by modernity to try to shut down the one thing it can’t successfully lie about or explain away. G.K. Chesterton exposed this dilemma of the revolutionary in The Loyal Traitor:

“We can rise up ignorance against science and impotence against power, but who is going raise ugliness against beauty?”

Against truth, the revolutionary can assert a lie, and the lie may be convincing. Against nobility, the revolutionary can assert liberty and license, and they are appealing. But against beauty he can only offer sophistries and evasions, because beauty is unanswerable. You can give someone a false idea to fall back on, but you can’t stop him from seeing it if he has any humanity left.

Of the three great pillars of goodness – Truth, Nobility, and Beauty – beauty is the easiest to perceive and that hardest to define. You cannot exactly say what constitutes it; it is not evenness (trees are beautiful), nor size (flowers and mountains are both beautiful), nor vision (music and poems and even ideas can be beautiful). The only way to really describe it is a thing being as it ought to be. In short, beauty is the raw perception that the thing before us is good.

This is why beauty leads to love, and why talk of love is so often couched in terms of beauty: perception of goodness leads easily to willing that goodness to continue, and consequently to the desire to subordinate oneself to it.

This is also the reason for the ‘beauty equals goodness’ trope, which was never as universal as some like to claim, but it a venerable practice: storytellers make the good people beautiful as a shorthand way of showing their goodness, and the reverse for the bad guys. In visual media, it encourages us to be on their side from the beginning. Beauty is raw perception of goodness, at least in terms of form and appearance, so it is helpful as a means to lead audiences to perceive other good qualities about the heroes.

If beauty is the raw perception of goodness, then we may say that, in our experience of beauty, we have a dim image of how God perceives creation. God saw that creation was good; that is, creation affected God after the fashion a beautiful object affects us. Had mankind never fallen, no doubt his ability to perceive beauty would have been greatly increased, as would his ability to produce it in his own work.

What is more, beauty, as I said, is a perception that a thing is as it ought to be. Thus, the notion of objective beauty contains within it something akin to the notion of intent in creation, something akin to the Platonic forms, the essential concept that there are ideas behind real, physical things we encounter. That is, if we perceive beauty, we perceive that that beautiful object conforms to its pattern or its concept. But that means there is a concept that precedes the object, as the concept of a machine precedes its invention.

There are two ways to understand this; the progressive claims that the concept comes from us; that our perception of beauty depends on how well it fits our own pre-conceived notions of the object. Thus, a woman is beautiful is she fits the ‘standards’ of the (male) observer. The traditionalist, on the other hand, would say that the concept comes from God, and that we perceive that the beautiful object, insofar as it is beautiful, fits the perfect idea of it in the mind of the Creator. We are able to perceive this because we are made in His image and likeness and thus have minds akin to His, if infinitely lesser.

The problem with the progressive approach is first that we may perceive beauty in things we are seeing for the first time, and which we had no conception of before hand. A traveller from the Navajo who ended up in Paris would be able to perceive beauty in Notre Dame Cathedral though he’d never seen a stone building before. A boy raised in the Sahara would not be blind to the beauty of a snowfall merely because he’d never imagined one before (indeed, this is the opposite of our experience; totally new perceptions of beauty strike us more forcefully than ones we are familiar with).

Another problem is one that progressive thought runs into constantly; the problem of origin. If beauty is socially constructed, it is hard to see where the concept came from in the first place. That is, if our perception of beauty is only our perception of the preconceived notions we have been taught by social pressures to apply, then whence can these notions and to what purpose? Who was it that decided Mozart and Bouguereau ought to strike the senses as they do and why?

You see, if our conception of a given object, and hence of its beauty comes from ourselves through social pressures, there must be an origin point at which this process began. And it is hard to imagine either how that would happen or why it would be applied to such completely irrelevant objects as stars, landscapes, and music, but not to more survival-crucial factors such as food or tools (for beauty is so far not utility that the two concepts are almost opposites: very, very few things are valued both for their beauty and their utility).

Now, I am sure some explanation could be offered that was more or less plausible (off the top of my head, a common conception of beauty fosters group cohesion. Though I severely doubt primitive peoples, or really anyone prior to the modern world even thought in those terms, let alone formed quiet conspiracies to enact them. Considering how incompetent we, with our ‘scientific’ understanding of these phenomena are at creating such things, I doubt our ancestors even bothered trying). The point is that beauty requires an explanation, and more than that, if it isn’t going to end in what might be termed a traditionalist view – of objective values, supernatural origins, and teleological creation – it has to be explained away. Beauty, as an objective reality, does not fit into a progressive view of the universe.

Yet even when intellectually explained away, it can’t be avoided except through maiming the soul. Jaded high school students raised on ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ will still stop and gaze at a Bouguereau painting. People still flock to the Grand Canyon and still stargaze, and you can still pack an auditorium to hear the music of Mozart. Beauty is unanswerable because it is simply perceived, as a color is. You can quibble about the definition of green, but you can’t argue a man into seeing red. You can explain beauty away, but you can’t stop someone from seeing it. Beauty, in the last resort, is the final snag that links a man to God.

That is why modern, progressive society hates it so much. That is why we try to scrub it as much as possible from our lives, why we insist on subjectivity, why we insist that ugly works of art are just as good – nay, better – than beautiful ones. That is one reason we lay so much stress on the sexual aspect of female beauty. That is why the Catholic liturgy has been gutted and Catholic churches defaced by their own congregations.

Beauty leads to love, and to love anything for its own sake is to take one step away from the progressive mindset that the end goal is the greatest thing and one step closer to loving God, from whom all good things flow.

 

First Meditation: God the Creator

Note: This is just a series of loose thoughts written out more or less as they come, presented in the hopes that someone will find something worthwhile within them. 

 

Most of the truths of our faith have become truisms through repetition, so that we fail to appreciate their meaning. To say that God created the Heavens and the Earth, and that through Christ all things were made seems to us, at the end of two millennia of Christian teaching, to be simply what a god does. We hardly even remember that the pagan gods, by and large, were not creators. At best, they were artisans making new things out of what already was. Zeus was not the creator. Odin the all-father himself had fathers. But God, the God of the Hebrews, is Creator of all, including of the devil himself, and He made them out of nothing, through His word alone.

It is an interesting point that: In the Beginning was the Word, through Whom all things were made. And God, in Genesis, creates by word, merely by commanding it to be. God speaks, and the world was made.

That raises a question: what is a word? Is a word not an idea made manifest? If I say ‘chair,’ well you and I have an idea of what a chair is. The word conveys the idea through sound or symbol, yet neither sound nor symbol contain within themselves the idea (as shown by the fact that other sounds and symbols can and are used to manifest the same idea: hence the variety of language).

A word is an idea made manifest. When God speaks His word, His ideas are made. It might almost be said that, as setting up sound waves are our method of speaking, so Creation is God’s.

That means that everything that is corresponds to an idea within the mind of God. These ideas may be said to correspond with what Plato called the Forms (if I read him correctly): the deeper reality that physical things are the reflection of.

All this world we live in came direct from the mind of God, yet is external to Him, as a spoke word is external to the speaker (the image in The Silmarillian of God and the angels singing creation into being is a very fitting one). Moreover, God called the world good, and we know that He loves the world, and especially mankind. If He loves it, then we are to love it as well.

But what of the unlovable parts of Creation? Sin and pain and suffering and the like?

Part of that I think may be that nature, in the sense of non-human physical nature, was never meant to quite correspond to rational values. Just what she is or what her purpose is, we do not know. Perhaps before the Fall we did, but not now. But she is separated from us in a way she is not from the other animals: the rules for lions and deer and insects are not those for us. Yet, as both come from the same mind, we must be able to find parallels and illustrations between them: they are not absolutely different.

More importantly, however, is the reality of sin: that is, the creature rebelling against the creator and refusing to correspond to the perfect idea in the mind of God, even though it is only in such correspondence that the creature can experience what is called happiness.

I don’t know whether nature herself can sin, but a rational being, one aware of itself and its creator, certainly can. This follows from God making all things good. The creature, contemplating itself, sees that itself is good. It is thus aware of two goods; itself and God. Whenever two or more goods are presented, it is possible to choose one or the other. Yet God cannot make anything that is not good, and as it is better to choose freely than by compulsion, His goodness would require Him to grant free will to His creatures, which being themselves good and reflections of Him, must tempt them to choose themselves apart from Him.

Sin, thus, is perhaps a necessary, not condition or even consequence, but possibility of the world God has made. The very goodness of goodness itself creates the possibility of evil.

This we see in our own experience: everything good can potentially be turned to evil. Anything good can be abused, and the better the thing is, the worse the abuse. Creation was good; perhaps the best thing there is apart from God (well, by definition it must be, as those are, broadly speaking, the only two categories in existence), thus it has the potential for evil.

Does God, who is all good, therefore have the potential for Evil? No, because evil means choosing the self or some other good besides God. Obviously, God Himself cannot do that.

Creation, therefore, by its very goodness creates the possibility of evil. It also spreads God’s own goodness and reflects it. Why did God create, if creation brings with it the possibility of Evil? It seems to be that He wished to share the goodness that He is; to give it to others. Creation is a pure gift of goodness; when we gaze on the night sky, or enjoy the taste of food, or spend time in nature, or listen to music, or make love with our wives, we are sharing in the goodness of God. We are experiencing, in a minor key, a taste of what He experiences eternally and offers to share with us.

I don’t know whether non-rational creation experiences anything like this; certainly there is some measure of happiness found in animal life, such as dogs or horses, and perhaps there is something akin to happiness in nature herself. Wordsworth described every flower rejoicing in the air it breathes, but I wonder whether what is actually happening is not more like the entirety of nature herself has some form of spirit, which experiences something like happiness. Or perhaps God’s idea of each species and each type of plant and stone and ocean has its proper spirit or angel to partake in its share of the goodness of God. Or perhaps these things exist for the sake of the rational creation, and experience happiness only through man. The example of domestic animals might seem to indicate this: a dog achieves its full state of happiness, if that is the correct word, only through the love and training of a kind master.

But this is speculation. What we do know is that God created all things through His Word, which is Christ, the second person of the Trinity. All things, therefore, are good to the extent that God made them.

And what of the evil things of creation? Cancers and diseases and the like? I think we can say these things were not made that way by God, but twisted by the Devil. For instance, the little bacteria that causes Bubonic Plague was created innocent by God. It was Satan that took it and twisted it to be the vector of disease. Viruses, those little un-living bundles of protein, may have been created direct by the Devil as a mockery of life. Cancer too is not a creature itself but a misprogramming of the body. Such things are not the work of God, but corruptions or distortions. Disease is the Devil’s creation, as seen by Christ casting it out wherever He goes, together with the demons who are the Devil’s minions.

But we are not like that. We were made direct by God and in His image and likeness. He made each of us individually, and knew us before He formed us in our mothers’ wombs. Each human being corresponds to a particular idea in the mind of God: each man has his own proper Form.

These ideas are what God means for each of us, the pattern that He intended us to be. He does not create to no purpose, and He expects something specific from each one of us (see the parable of the Talents). None of us, save Our Lord, Our Lady, and perhaps St. John the Baptist, has ever fully matched the Idea God had of us in His head. Those of us who make creative work will recognize that the ideas we have never seem to measure up to the reality: perhaps this is God’s way of conveying His frustration to us.

And why do we not fit the pattern when we have a perfect creator? Because, in a staggering condescention, God does not act as sole creator. He permits us to have a hand in our own creation. He provides the baseline: our time, our appearance, our sex, and so on, and guides our hand through the rest, but we are the ones He wishes to create according to His pattern: to build upon what He provides us.

It is since the initial fall and the onset of original sin – like the familial tremors that make it so hard for me to write neatly – that this co-creation has become impossible. We can’t help missing the line or twitching the pen out of position, and that’s when we are trying to follow the pattern. When we decide to freestyle on the idea we can make something better than God, we end up with a complete mess. We make ourselves into things that are no longer even akin to what God intended, fitting outselves for nothing but the rubbish heap.

For never forget: we are made in God’s image. These selves we are creating are little portraits of our Divine Creator. An image of God that conveys a lie, or a slander, or a caricature of Him is unacceptable, even in the interest of the ruined man himself. To be eternally proclaiming a lie is no happiness and does no good to anyone. Thus enters Hell: the repository for lies and broken images. To be made in the image of God contains within itself the requirement of Hell: for if an image turns false to its subject, it ceases to be an image at all.

God created the world, but He allows us to help create ourselves. Our lives are the creation process: in fact, we do not know what it is like to be in a finished creation, only in an ongoing one. That state of completion, of having it said of us “It is good,” is what we call ‘Heaven.’

Thus, properly speaking, our lives are a single, continuous creation, like the lines in a picture make up a single image. The revelation of Our Faith is in the Life of Christ, and before that the Life of Israel the nation: not in any one formula or set of statements (though these are used to clarify and understand revelation). God speaks through creation, and the life of a man is a single element of Creation. Thus, the Life of Christ is, in its totality, God’s statement to mankind.

 

Our Particular Challenge

There are some doctrine that are ill-suited for some times. St. Paul wrote the Corinthians that he “gave them milk to drink, not meat, for you were not yet able.” (1 Cor. 3:2). That is, he didn’t try to convey the fullness or complexity of Christian doctrine to them, since he knew they weren’t yet ready to understand or profit by it.

The trouble is that if you don’t understand basic ideas, you won’t understand the more complex ones. If the foundation is ill laid, the building will not stand solid. This is one of the chief problems of the modern world; that most of us never learn our basics, yet we attempt to understand the advanced lessons.

To take an example, we often hear, in Christian circles, of the vanity of worldly good and that the good of Christ is other and greater than the greatness of mankind. This is, of course, very true, but it is not, in our day and age, very proper, for we have lost most of our idea of the greatness of man.

People in St. Paul’s day, and for most of the centuries following had a clear notion of what constituted earthly greatness and goodness. They had at least a basic understanding of virtue and nobility; able to look to illustrious figures like King David, Hector, Alexander, Scipio Africanus, Aeneas, and so on for their examples of Earthly greatness. To know that the glory of Christ surpassed these, therefore, conveyed a real idea to their minds.

But that is no longer true in our day. Our conceptions of morality and greatness of spirit are so skewed that we don’t even comprehend the basics of what it consists. We hold up superficialities like sex or skin color, political views or whether a man owned slaves and judge accordingly. Of honor, nobility, magnanimity, chastity, charity, beauty, wisdom, courage, and justice we think (to borrow a phrase from Prof. Lewis) “as a baboon thinks of classical music.”

For contemporary Christians, the first step is not comprehending the glory of Christ; it is comprehending the greatness of man. Not because man is greater than Christ, but because he is less. Because it is easier to understand mortal virtues than divine ones, and yet we have not even progressed that far.

Christ Himself assumed that His disciples understood basic morality and so could understand His taking it to a higher level: “You have heard it said…” “Even of yourselves judge what is right.” “If you who are wicked know how to give good things.” My argument is that, in the modern world, that is no longer the case and we Christians ought to act accordingly. When we preach, our first preaching should be the fundamentals of right and wrong, good and evil, greatness and meanness.

This is one reason I find it annoying when certain Christians try to say things like “our true country is not here, therefore it doesn’t matter what happens to America.” The first part of the statement is true, but what does it matter where our true country is if we can’t even muster the basic virtue of caring for the one we happen to find ourselves in? What is the sense of saying “it doesn’t matter if you’re unable to ride the pony; you’ll be getting a stallion one day”? To paraphrase St. John, if we don’t love the earthly country we see, how do we expect to love the heavenly one we don’t see?

What many of us seem to forget is that Earthly virtues are not simply contrary to heavenly ones, but are as immature forms of the same ideas. They are precursors, by which we train on lighter things to be able to bear the heavier. That is why men who most manifest the heavenly virtues are not for that reason bare of the cardinal ones. This is also why Christians traditionally honor worldly and even pagan glory: why the Medievals were fascinated by the Romans and Greeks, and why men like Washington and Columbus have been celebrated by Christian writers.

This is the doctrine of objective value, which is less a Christian doctrine than a human one. That is to say, it is a more basic and fundamental doctrine than any of the tenets of Christianity. It isn’t that one cannot successfully be a saint without holding it; it’s that one cannot be a human being.

In summary, in our day and age the first step of evangelization is often simply to convince people of the reality of value, not as a subjective and self-willed part of one’s personality, but as an objective and external reality that demands a certain response. We must first convert people to the human race before we attempt to convert them to Christianity.

 

The Two Thieves

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All four Gospels note that Christ was crucified along with two others. These two are described as ‘thieve’ or ‘robbers,’ though this is sometimes rendered ‘revolutionaries’ or simply ‘criminals.’ One was crucified on His right, the other on His left.

Viewed from a modern perspective, the designation of right and left is a little interesting, especially if we take the interpretation that they were revolutionaries. If we follow it out, it could be taken as an interesting perspective on Our Lord’s relation to politics.

First of all, the linking of the terms ‘revolutionary’ with ‘robber.’ Apparently, the same Greek word ‘Iestes’ was used for both. I’ve heard several reasons for this, from the idea that revolutionaries were attempting to steal from the Romans to the notion that it was a way to avoid letting the Emperor know of revolutions. For our purposes, the background doesn’t really matter, provided the two terms were linked.

It is a quality of both a thief and a revolutionary that his focus is on the here and now. The thief wants a certain object so much that he takes it regardless of the law, the revolutionary wants a certain social or political state so much that he fights for it. Either one may or may not be justified by circumstance, but both have the quality that their aim is a change in the material world.

This is also a quality of politics: that its focus is entirely upon the here and now, or at the very least what the future here and now may be made to be. It is the science of organizing human society in the way thought best. Even if this is done for the purpose of establishing justice, liberty, or other abstract values, it is still establishing them in the present world and by the means of social organization. Politics, thus, is a fundamentally earthly practice.

Now, let us take the two criminals as revolutionaries (this interpretation is supported by the fact that crucifixion was generally associated with acts of sedition rather than more typical crimes). Again, the fact that one is on the right, the other on the left is interesting, though obviously it carries a significance to us that it wouldn’t have for St. Luke. We needn’t fear reading it thus for that reason, though; there are no coincidences in revelation.

The right and left revolutionary, therefore, may be taken as images of political movements in general. One on this side, the other on that. If we take it thus, what does the image imply?

First that politics ultimately comes to nothing. These revolutionaries fought for their particular cause and ended up crucified. In the end, their efforts were futile and led to nothing but death and disgrace. Politics, though it may be important in the short term, is ultimately a dead end. The promise that this or that political system will solve the ills of mankind is a lie.

Note that they are being crucified along with Christ, who is bearing the sins of the world. They suffer the same fate, but without the salvific character. It is Christ who can save them, if they will allow it, not the other way around. Politics, thus, always must be subordinate to Christ.

Now, the reactions of the revolutionaries to Christ are instructive. One of the two blasphemes Christ, demanding that He save their lives if His is the Christ. The other – traditionally called St. Dismas – rebukes him and begs that Jesus remember him when He comes into His Kingdom.

Again we see the focus on the here and now. The one revolutionary, even in the process of dying, still has his mind fixed upon earthly things. He is, in effect, standing in judgment over Jesus, setting his material well being as a condition for belief. One recalls how certain political movements have done similar things: from Communists taunting Christians to pray to God for bread to moderns attacking prayers offered in the wake of national tragedies. Politics of a certain sort has always claimed the right to stand in judgment of God over the material state of the world.

St. Dismas’s rebuke shows another approach. Though he’s given his life in a political cause, he yet retains a perspective on where politics stands relative to God. He admits that his punishment and that of his companion is a just one; they have indeed committed the crimes they are accused of and must suffer for it. Upon the cross, he lets go of his political motivations and speaks only of justice and fear of God. He subordinates his political concerns to his piety, merely begging Jesus to have mercy on him.

Thus we have the place of politics relative to God: the evils done in its name are done on all sides, whether for a good cause or an ill. The righteous politician or revolutionary is the one who sees that God is beyond all such things and places himself under the mercy of Christ. The unrighteous is the one who tries to subordinate God to his own interests.

In summary, politics cannot save but itself needs salvation, politics leads men to do evil, for which they are justly condemned, and all politics is subordinate to the claims of Christ.

 

The End of Multiculturalism

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The Pagan religions were, in many ways, fine things. Though far more prone to cruelty and depravity than our squeamishly tolerant modern minds like to admit, there was a nobility to them. They were the fumbling, crude efforts of man to render worship to the unknown and hidden powers that govern the universe. From before his earliest known records, probably from before man was man, he had been haunted by the sense, the knowledge that there were things over and above him, to which he stood in the relation of a servant or even an animal, and which commanded his awe and respect. In every corner of the globe, there grew up means of rendering this due respect, of entering pleas and making restitution for offenses. The Romans had their own notions of it, making obeisance to dozens of different deities and deified figures from the past. It was a point of pride for them to be the most pious of all people, and they certainly reaped rich rewards. Everywhere they went, they found more gods, or perhaps their own under different names. Generally the Roman deities were enforced, though those masters of mankind were wise enough to be tolerant of most local cults.

But there was a general undercurrent of thought among the great minds of the era, including the Philosopher himself, that such things were speculative only. The truth of these mysteries was far too high for man to reach. So, whatever local superstitions or cults there might be were more or less to left to themselves. After all, they probably all amounted to much the same thing, and no one was ever going to figure out the truth.

It’s been said before that the ancient and modern worlds are remarkably similar in many ways. Perhaps this is simply the natural bent of the human mind when it’s had too much civilization for too long. The great issues seem less great and tolerance and open-mindedness replace piety and courage as the favored virtues. The Roman world was what we would call supremely multicultural: as long as you made a little obeisance to the official cult, it didn’t really matter too much what or who you worshiped. After all, as the wise men said, it wasn’t like anyone actually knew the truth: any or none of the cults could be true, so let people do what they liked, provided they didn’t upset the status quo.

What none of them realized was that one people did have the truth. They hadn’t ‘figured it out:’ Aristotle had been right to say it was too high for man to discover. Instead, God – the one, true God, the reality of which all pagan deities were, at best dim reflections of – had revealed Himself to them. The Lord whom man had felt an uneasy awareness of since the beginning, the light the enlightens every heart had made Himself known to a small, insular nation that had spent the last few thousand years tenaciously guarding its religion while being kicked back and forth by the various Mediterranean powers. In a little, violent, unstable backwater of the Roman Empire, man had had direct contact with the Divine, and the secret of secrets was jealously kept.

For the Jews, though they held knowledge of God, were not a proselytizing people. They sought no converts and made few. They kept their religion, not hidden, but their own, just as they kept some of the greatest works of ancient literature hoarded within their sacred scriptures. It was, apparently, God’s will that they should do this. Their history as a people hard largely consisted of a struggle to maintain doctrinal purity among the innumerable pagan cults that surrounded and sometimes ruled over them. Their God, the God whose name was a declaration of His supreme reality and was never spoken save in secret in the most solemn ritual, and who forbade any image to be made of Himself, would permit no other idol and no other deity to be worshipped by His people, nor would the Jews permit the likening of their God to any other. So zealous were they that they had proved they would fight to the death rather than abandon a single tenant of their faith.

So this strange nation in the corner of the Roman empire bore this knowledge within as a mother bears a child in her womb: hidden, yet manifest, quietly nurtured and zealously protected, waiting until the right time to come forth.

As it happened, during the reign of Caesar Augustus, there was a woman among these Jews who bore a son. As the Jews had received knowledge of their God from no human mind, but direct from Heaven, so her child had no human father. As God worked to preserve His people from error and apostasy for long centuries, so she was preserved in virginity even in childbirth. And the birth of her child marked the manifestation of God before the nations of man.

We celebrate a birth not because it is the start of a new life (that happens at conception), but because it is the appearance of the child who heretofore had been in community only with its mother into the community of mankind as a whole. God had manifested Himself to His chosen people, and remained hidden, as it were, within that nation. Now, though, He came forth to make Himself known to the nations. As the Christ child emerged from his mother’s womb, so the True God emerged from the Jewish nation and entered the communion of Man. The guarded and, as it were, secret knowledge of Jews was unleashed upon the world.

There is a story that, sometime during the reign of Tiberius Caesar, a message came to a sailor, which he spread through the land, that the great god Pan was dead. About the same time, according to one legend, the Oracle at Delphi stopped its prophecies. It was the herald of the end of the pagan world. Mankind’s struggle to find and to placate the unknown gods was over, because the true God had come among them. There was no going back.

In modern terms, it could be said that the Birth of Christ was the death of multiculturalism. The modern idea of the equality of all religions is not so much wrong as about two thousand years out of date. There was a time when it might be fair to say “we can’t know the truth, so let all worship as he sees fit,” but it’s a time long past. In ended on Christmas morning.

That is really what we celebrate on Christmas: the end of Paganism. Not because the pagan religions were necessarily bad in themselves, but because the need for them had passed, a fact which all men who truly loved the gods would celebrate. No more groping in the darkness; no more fumbling efforts to find the right way, or to comprehend the incomprehensible. The lights had been turned on, and a path made clear. That which man had always sought had appeared in their midst. That which they had wondered about and tried to glimpse through the fog had revealed itself. One of the ancient and perennial woes of mankind – his alienation from the Divine – had been removed.

The relation of paganism to Christianity was not of one system to another but of question to answer. That is why its advent meant a tectonic shift in human history. There is no parity between rumors and reality, or between hearing a man described and meeting him in person. Christmas was the dawn of certainty where previously there had been only doubt, of light where there had ever been darkness, and of the bridging of a gap that had seemed immeasurable.

The modern mind does not typically think through the consequences of its suppositions. So few people who say ‘all religions and all cultures are equal’ consider what it really means. If all religions, with their wide variety of doctrine, are equal, that is only to say that no one knows the truth, which is to say that God is too far removed from us to have any clear idea of Him. Christmas is the celebration of the fact that this isn’t true: that God has come among us, and our long isolation is over at last. Man’s search for God is over, for God has come to him. Our relationship to the world and to the Divine has been permanently altered.

In short, Christmas is the celebration of the moment when it ceased to be possible to say that all religions were equal. Those are its glad tiding of great joy: God is come to man, and the time of doubt is past.

 

Really Good Post at First Things

I found this essay at First Things and had to share it. Of the many issues plaguing the contemporary Church, perhaps the strangest is our great fear of rigidity or ‘legalism.’ Really, who looking at Christians in America or Western Europe could honestly think “our biggest problem is that we’re too rigid, too intolerant of sin, and too zealous for the letter of the law.”

The author of this piece explains the mentality behind ‘legalism’ and how helpful it can be in fighting against sin and drawing us to greater heights of holiness.

Who has not reflected on a certain moment of temptation and been impressed by the mastery and expertise with which the trap was laid? A very fine temptation offers not only secrecy, but justification and promises of no harassment from a nagging conscience later on. If Christians would fight temptation, they must have not only the desire to win, but a strategy for obedience that respects the prowess of their enemy.

“I will not gossip at school” is not a rule, I explained to my students, “because it is a Christian obligation.” A monastic rule does not deal in obligations, but in voluntarily laying down your rights. No Christian is allowed to gossip. No Christian is allowed to be slothful. No Christian is allowed to lust. These are not rules a man gives himself, but commands of God, which are not up for debate. But Lucifer is a crafty devil and does not tempt every human in the same way. He tailors temptations. He has learned that men fall prey to certain temptations more readily than women, and vice versa. Healthy men are more tempted by pride, unhealthy more tempted by sloth. Thus, gluttony is prohibited by God, but ice cream and potato chips are not. If a man has no problem eating a modest portion of ice cream and laying the spoon aside, then he needs no rule to aid him in fulfilling God’s command not to be a glutton. If another man cannot eat a bite of ice cream without eating the whole bucket, he needs a rule to help him fight temptation.

Read it all. We need more of this in the Church.

 

Have a Bleak Good Friday

I am quickly growing to be a fan of Mr. John Zmirak over at Stream. He effectively wrote what I would have liked to have written regarding Good Friday (a good thing too, as I probably wasn’t going to write it):

It’s all too easy to let this holy day get swallowed up by Easter. We know how things turn out. Death gets swallowed up by victory. Jesus goes down into darkness just for a weekend.

In fact, we know that tomorrow He will be rooting around in Hades to free Elijah and Esther, Abraham and Moses, even schlemiels like Adam and Eve. They will follow Him to glory. So it’s all too easy for us to fast forward through the Passion. Just so, lax Christianity would glide over the darkness of sin, to focus on forgiveness. That’s natural, of course. But then, our nature is fallen.

To really embrace the grace that’s offered by this season, we must master our minds and emotions. We should travel the road of these holy days at the same speed as the apostles. It won’t help us to jump ahead. In fact, it impoverishes everything.

Go here to read the rest, and have a somber and bleak Good Friday.

pieta-large.