About Christopher Benson

Christopher Benson is an English Teacher. He earned a B.A. in Philosophy from Wheaton College, M.A. in Journalism from the University of Missouri, and M.A. in Liberal Arts from St. John's College. His writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Weekly Standard, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, First Things, Image, The Christian Century, and Christian Scholar's Review.

Are fairy stories only for children?

From C. S. Lewis’ essay, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say What’s Best to Be Said”:

The truth is, as [Professor J. R. R. Tolkien] says, that [fairy tales] are now associated with children because they are out of fashion with adults; have in fact retired to the nursery as old furniture used to retire there, not because the children had begun to like it but because their elders had ceased to like it.

I was therefore writing ‘for children’ only in the sense that I excluded what I thought they would not like or understand; not in the sense of writing what I intended to be below adult attention. I may of course have been deceived, but the principle at least saves one from being patronizing. I never wrote down to anyone; and whether the opinion condemns or acquits my own work, it certainly is my opinion that a book worth reading only in childhood is not worth reading even then. The inhibitions which I hoped my stories would overcome in a child’s mind may exist in a grown-up’s mind too, and may perhaps be overcome by the same means.

The Fantastic or Mythical is a Mode available at all ages for some readers; for others, at none. At at all ages, if it is well used by the author and meets the right reader, it has the same power: to generalize while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experience, and to throw off irrelevancies. But at its best it can do more; it can give us experiences we have never had and thus, instead of ‘commenting on life,’ can add to it. I am speaking, of course, about the thing itself, not my own attempts at it.

‘Juveniles,’ indeed! Am I to patronize sleep because children sleep sound? Or honey because children like it?

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Proceeding from the existing position and disposition of the hearer

In his Guide to Thomas Aquinas, Josef Pieper develops a valuable insight for educators. Too often, we begin our teaching from “the existing position and disposition” of the teacher rather the student, assuming that the teacher is the “sage on the stage” (or expert) who pours knowledge into the student, an empty vessel. This approach is backwards according to Pieper because if we do not know the situatedness of our hearer we cannot instruct, inspire or influence in a significant way. An orientation to the hearer is the teacher’s act of charity.

Thus teaching implies proceeding from the existing position and disposition of the hearer. Nor can that position be determined abstractly in advance, or fixed once and for all; it must be located in its own historical context, determined concretely for what it is. The hearer’s counterarguments must be taken seriously and the elements of truth in them recognized — for aside from the products of feeblemindedness or intellectual gamesmanship, there are no entirely false opinions. The teacher, then, must proceed from what is valid in the opinions of the hearer to the fuller and purer truth as he, the teacher, understands it.

NOTE: Pieper makes a helpful distinction between the hearer’s “existing position and disposition.” I interpret position as a combination of worldview (Weltanschauung) and lifeworld (Lebenswelt), and disposition as temperament or personality.

Is there a decadent path to Christ?

Catholic literary critic Joseph Pearce:

It is perhaps a paradox of Wildean, Baudelairean or even Chestertonian proportions that the road to hell can sometimes lead to heaven. Had not Baudelaire proclaimed that only Catholics knew the devil? Baudelaire knew, more painfully and grotesquely than most, that we must know our sins in order to know ourselves. One who does not know that he is a sinner does not know himself, nor does he know the God who made him. We must know the hell within ourselves, and the Hell to which it owes allegiance, before we can know the heaven that is promised us. This “discovery” was hardly an original innovation of the French or English Decadents. Six centuries earlier, Dante had discovered the same perennial truth, conveying it with unsurpassed genius in his descent into the inferno en route to Purgatory and paradise.

If it is true that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, it is also true that the road to heaven is sometimes paved with bad ones. Our very sins, if we repent, can be our teachers and guides. In recollecting our sins, and in recoiling from their consequences, we can be kept on the narrow path that leads purgatorially upward toward paradise. Thus the scribes, Pharisees and hypocrites, imagining themselves on the path to heaven, might be heading for an unpleasant surprise, where the publicans and sinners, learning from their mistakes and amending their ways, might reach the Kingdom to which Christ has called them. [1]

***

These three pillars of the French Decadence [Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, J. K. Huysmans] exerted a towering influence on the English Decadent movement, whose chief champion was the seductively seditious and self-destructive Oscar Wilde. Gathering around Wilde were a group of acolytes, his Decade disciples. These included the poets Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson and John Gray, and the artist Aubrey Beardsley. Dowson, Johnson and Beardsley were all doomed to die young; but not, however, before each of them had embraced the Catholic faith. John Gray, having allegedly been the model for Wilde’s “Dorian Gray,” became a Catholic priest, serving his parish in Edinburgh until his death in 1933. As for Wilde himself, he was received into the saving embrace of Holy Mother Church on his deathbed. Thus the father of French Decadence [Baudelaire] and the father of its English equivalent shared a reconciliation with the Bride of Christ in extremis. One imagines that Dante, their great precursor, would have smiled with knowing benignity at the divine symmetry of the happy ending. The final words do not belong to Dante, however, nor do they belong to Baudelaire or Wilde; they belong to their fellow Decadent Ernest Dowson, who wrote with beauty and eloquence about the saving power of the Last Rites of the Church in his poem “Extreme Unction“:

The feet, that lately ran so fast
To meet desire, are soothly sealed;
The eyes, that were so often cast
On vanity, are touched and healed. [2]

[1] Joseph Pearce, “The Decadent Path to Christ,” in Catholic Literary Giants: A Field Guide to the Catholic Literary Landscape (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), 335.

[2] Pearce, 336-37.

Sacralizing time

Bobby Gross, the director of graduate and faculty ministries for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, writes:

We can, in effect, sacralize time itself. To sacralize something, according to Merriam-Webster, is to “imbue [it] with sacred character, especially through ritualized devotion.” We find compelling examples of sacralized time in Scripture when God declares the sabbath holy, when he ordains annual festivals for Israel and when the early Christians, in light of the resurrection, shift worship to the first day of the week. Over the centuries, the church has fittingly sacralized time by means of the liturgical calendar with its practices and celebrations, and we can fruitfully appropriate this pattern in our personal discipleship and devotion. [1]

***

But how does inhabiting the Story of God in liturgical time actually shape our lives? Here is the simple answer: by remembering and anticipating. Scholars sometimes employ the Greek words anamnesis [an-am-nee-sis] and prolepsis [proh-lep-seez] to describe these spiritual transactions.

As you might suspect, the first of these terms relates to the familiar idea of amnesia, the loss of memory. Anamnesis means the opposite: remembrance, recalling to mind, or literally “the drawing near of memory.” Jesus at his Last Supper said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in anamnesis of me” (Lk 22:19). When we take part in Communion, we do more than simply remember; in some spiritual way we bring the past into our present experience. Laurence Stookey describes this type of ritual as “an active kind of remembrance,” one “by doing rather than by cognition.” We identify with Jesus and vicariously participate in his life in a way that brings spiritual dividends to our own.

If anamnesis brings the past to bear in the present, prolepsis does something similar with the future. The literal meaning of the word is “to take beforehand,” and we use it to represent a future event as if it had already been accomplished. […] The experience of prolepsis is perhaps more mysterious than anamnesis, but in those acts that anticipate “the hope to which he has called you,” we receive a kind of spiritual down payment, as Paul puts it: a “pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people” (Eph 1:14, 18). The future comes into our present experience. […] This bringing of the past and the future into the present is the work of the Holy Spirit. [2]

***

By some mysterious grace, the light of the Christ who lived in history comes into our present experience with spiritual power, and the hope of the Christ who will return in glory to renew all things also brings power into our lives. Eternity intersects Time. Keeping the Christian year helps us to live at that intersection. [3]

[1] Bobby Gross, Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009), 21.

[2] Gross, 30-31.

[3] Gross, 32.

The liturgical year is “an exercise in spiritual ripening”

Any low church Christian might reasonably ask, What is the liturgical year for? I like the answer below from author and speaker, Joan Chittister, a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania:

The liturgical year is an adventure in bringing the Christian life to fullness, the heart to alert, the soul to focus. It does not concern itself with the questions of how to make a living. It concerns itself with the questions of how to make a life.

***

The liturgical year is the year that sets out to attune the life of the Christian to the life   of Jesus, the Christ. It proposes, year after year, to immerse us over and over again into the sense and substance of the Christian life until, eventually, we become what we say we are – followers of Jesus all the way to the heart of God. The liturgical year is an adventure in human growth, an exercise in spiritual ripening.

***

Like the rings on a tree, the cycles of Christian feasts are meant to mark the levels of our spiritual growth from one stage to another in the process of human growth. They add layer after layer to the meaning of life, to the sense of what it entails to live beyond the immediate and into the significant dimensions of human existence. The seasons and feasts, the fasts and solemnities, if we are open and alert to them, lead us deeper and deeper into the self, beyond the pull of the present, higher and higher into the One who beckons us on through time to that moment when we will dissolve into God, set free from time to become one with the universe. [1]

[1] Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009), 5-7.

Rowan Williams on taking time

In a brilliant lecture delivered at the University of Oxford in 2014, Anglican theologian Rowan Williams argued that taking time is one of the ways that religious faith uniquely contributes to human flourishing. Here is my distillation of the argument, which contrasts sacred and secular metaphors of time along with their respective attitudes:

Through faith, we redeem the time by receiving it as a generous gift for loving attention to God and neighbor rather than using it as a scarce commodity for anxiously managing life.

Williams on the problem of time in a secular age:

Increasingly, one of the marks of a fully and uncompromisingly secular environment is the notion of undifferentiated time. There are, for mature late capitalism, no such things as weekends. The problem with this kind of secularism is not so much a denial of the existence of God as the denial of the possibility of leisure – of time that is not spent in serving the market. That is to say, for a particular mindset, acquisitive and purpose-driven, the passage of time is precisely the slipping away of a scarce, valuable commodity, every moment of which has to be made to yield its maximum possible result, so you can’t afford to stop. This kind of secular understanding of the passage of time is perhaps one of those areas where there is most open collision between the fundamentally religious and the fundamentally anti-religious mindset – and I think that’s one of the untold stories of our time. We imagine, quite often, that the fundamental collisions are around metaphysics or ethics. But perhaps there’s another area at least as important, which is how we approach the time we are in, we spend – and indeed, the time we ‘waste.’

Williams on how religion resolves the problem of time in a secular age:

How religious communities spend their time is a serious and central theme. Time is not undifferentiated; its passing is marked in ways that are thought to be significant. So the passage of time becomes not just a trajectory of acquisition (acquiring property, acquiring power, acquiring security); it comes to be about the repeated accumulation, as you might say, of meaning, returning to symbolic resources to rediscover aspects of the universe you inhabit, aspects of yourself; to reconnect specific ongoing experience with steady, regular or rhythmical patterns, laid out in the language and practice of a religious community. You keep going back to the practices, the stories, in celebration and commemoration. Time, therefore, becomes neither simply cyclical nor simply linear. It moves, you change; at the same time there is something to which you return, to rediscover and enlarge the understanding acquired in the passage of time. And all of that adds up to dissolving any idea that time is a limited commodity (or indeed any kind of commodity) that has to be squeezed as hard as possible in order to keep the trajectory of acquisition going. Time is a complex and rich gift; it is the medium in which we not only grow and move forward but also constructively return and resource – literally re-source – ourselves. [1]

Watch the lecture here.

[1] Rowan Williams, “Faith and Human Flourishing,” in Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 78-79.

God takes time – not lacks time

Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson:

The true God is not eternal because he lacks time, but because he takes time. The eternity of Israel’s God is his faithfulness. He is not eternal in that he secures himself from time, but in that he is faithful to his commitments within time. At the great turning, Israel’s God is eternal in that he is faithful to the death, and then yet again faithful. God’s eternity is temporal infinity. [1]

[1] Stanley Hauerwas, “Why Time Cannot and Should Not Heal the Wounds of History, But Time Has Been and Can Be Redeemed,” in A Better Hope: Resources for a Church Confronting Capitalism, Democracy, and Postmodernity (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2000), 150.

Christ, the Eucharist, and time

Gerard Loughlin is a professor of theology at the University of Durham. I am indebted to him for these perspicacious insights on time.

From the perspective of eternity Christ’s second coming is one with his first, since all of his life is simultaneously embraced in the eternity of God. But from a temporal perspective, Christ becomes fully who he is through the development of his ecclesial body across the passage of time, as each moment gives way to the next. From such an earthly perspective there is an interval between ascension and parousia, in which the church is formed and given time in order to learn eternal life.

***

The Christian Eucharist remains the contrary of modern time, as the site where time continues to arrive from past and future, constituting the present moment through the church’s recollection and anticipation of what is promised: the ever-renewed arrival of God’s eternity in Christ. The Eucharist eternalizes time, as that which arrives and passes away in order to return again, bearing eternal life with it. The eucharistic celebration teaches the church how to wait upon the arrival of God’s gift of time. [1]

[1] Gerard Loughlin, “Time,” in The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, ed. Adrian Hastings (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000), 707-709.

Jesus has three daddies – or none

Cartoon.jpg

Back in 1989, Lesléa Newman’s ground-breaking title of LGBT children’s literature, Heather Has Two Mommies, was published and pushed in schools to normalize family diversity. As soon as I saw this New Yorker cartoon and read its caption, I imagined an agnostic or atheist trying to grapple with a mystery that flummoxes even honest Christians: the parentage of Jesus. The clean-shaven disciple in the cartoon looks sideways at the bearded Jesus, wondering about “his complicated relationship with his father,” whether it be his invisible father, the Holy Spirit, who impregnated his mother; his heavenly father, Yahweh, who spoke audibly to him at his baptism (Mt. 3:16-17); or his earthly father, Joseph of Nazareth, who raised him and taught him the craft of carpentry. Of course, the theologically correct answer is that Jesus has no parentage. The Council of Nicea (325 AD) established the consubstantiality (homoousion) of Jesus, who is of the same substance as the Father and the Spirit, hence the affirmation of the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
begotten from the Father before all ages,
God from God,
Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made;
of the same essence as the Father.

C. S. Lewis explains the mystery of Jesus’ non-parentage better than anyone I know in a chapter of Mere Christianity called, “Making and Begetting”:

One of the creeds says that Christ is the Son of God “begotten, not created”; and it adds “begotten by his Father before all worlds.” Will you please get it quite clear that this has nothing to do with the fact that when Christ was born on earth as a man, that man was the son of a virgin? We are not now thinking about the Virgin Birth. We are thinking about something that happened before Nature was created at all, before time began. “Before all worlds” Christ is begotten, not created. What does it mean?

We don’t use the words begetting or begotten much in modern English, but everyone still knows what they mean. To beget is to become the father of: to create is to make. And the difference is this. When you beget, you beget something of the same kind as yourself. A man begets human babies, a beaver begets little beavers and a bird begets eggs which turn into little birds. But when you make, you make something of a different kind from yourself. A bird makes a nest, a beaver builds a dam, a man makes a wireless set—or he may make something more like himself than a wireless set: say, a statue. If he is a clever enough carver he may make a statue which is very like a man indeed. But, of course, it is not a real man; it only looks like one. It cannot breathe or think. It is not alive.

Now that is the first thing to get clear. What God begets is God; just as what man begets is man. What God creates is not God; just as what man makes is not man. That is why men are not Sons of God in the sense that Christ is. They may be like God in certain ways, but they are not things of the same kind. They are more like statues or pictures of God.

What is the present?

St. Augustine:

As is now evident and clear, the future and past do not exist; nor is it proper to say, “there are three times, past, present and future.” But perhaps it would be proper to say, “there are three times, a present of the past, a present of the present and a present of the future.” For these three things do exist in the mind (anima), and I do not see them elsewhere. The present of the past is memory, the present of the present is attending (contuitus), the present of the future expectation. [1]

Soren Kierkegaard:

The moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity. It is the first reflection of eternity in time, its first attempt, as it were, at stopping time. [2]

Oliver O’Donovan:

But what is the present? It may be thought of as outside time, whether, as Augustine conceived it, the eternal, the native element of God, or, as in a train of thought Jean-Yves Lacoste has opened up, as the native element of feeling, prior to any thinking or acting; it may be thought of as a privileged moment within time, a point of view upon time, looking back and forth across it. One way or the other, what the present cannot be is a period of time, with dimensions and extension. As soon as we sandwich it in between past and future, it disappears into nothingness. It is fleeting, an indeterminable moment of transition of what-is-not-yet to what-is-over-and-done-with. We find ourselves like salmon leaping in the stream, the present being our point of purchase on our upstream journey, disposing of the past and appropriating the future. Constituted, in Heidegger’s expression, by its “horizons,” the points at which past and future meet in interface, our hold on the present is simply a moment of coming together and opening up, when what we have been faces what we may be. [3]

[1] Richard Sorabji, “Time, Mysticism, and Creation” in Augustine’s Confessions: Critical Essays, ed. William E. Mann (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), 213.

[2] Oliver O’Donovan, Self, World, and Time: Ethics as Theology: Volume 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 15.

[3] Soren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety in The Essential Kierkegaard, ed. Howard V. Hong & Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000), 151.