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.

A bright room off the hallway

In the “Preface” to Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis uses a decidedly Protestant metaphor that compares Christianity to a house. The hall is “mere” Christianity while the rooms off the hall are ecclesial traditions, such as Presbyterian, Anglican, or Lutheran. Owing to the Cyprian formula, Extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“Outside the Church there is no salvation”), the Catholic would likely regard the entire house as the Catholic; the same holds for the Orthodox. Lewis writes:

I hope no reader will suppose that “mere” Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions—as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable. It is true that some people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at. I do not know why there is this difference, but I am sure God keeps no one waiting unless He sees that it is good for him to wait. When you do get into your room you will find that the long wait has done you some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise. But you must regard it as waiting, not as camping. You must keep on praying for light: and, of course, even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house. And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and panelling. In plain language, the question should never be: “Do I like that kind of service?” but “Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this? Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or my personal dislike of this particular door-keeper?”

When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.   

Not until college did I realize that I was camping in the hall, which explains my spiritual poverty and restlessness at the time. I mistakenly believed that I was reared in a room when, in fact, it was no room at all but the hall of “mere” Christianity. Even though I belonged to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), it functioned more like a non-denominational church, lacking the Presbyterian character found in the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) or Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). Without being catechized in a tradition, my faith was superficial and shapeless, devoid of liturgical practice, doctrinal knowledge, and church history. With exposure to the Church of England during my study abroad programs in London and Oxford, I discovered light emanating from the Anglican room. That light has continued to summon me. Having tried the doors of some other rooms, I believe it is brightest here. Anglicans furnish a room with a warm fire, comfortable chair, and nourishing meal.

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Escape-travel

What’s so wrong about escaping for awhile? “These moments of escape are not to be despised. They come too seldom,” says a character in Virginia Woolf’s novel, The Waves. On the subject of fans who reread books, Alan Jacobs writes in The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction:

Such reading is not purely a matter of escapism, even though that is one reason for its attraction: we should note that it’s not what readers are escaping from but what they are escaping into that counts most. Most of us do not find fictional worlds appealing because we find our own lives despicable, though censorious people often make that assumption. Auden once wrote that “there must always be . . . escape-art, for man needs escape as he needs food and deep sleep.” The sleeper does not disdain consciousness.

Just as there must always be “escape-art,” I say there must also be escape-travel. In the summer of 2016, my family traveled to southeast England, where we stayed at two sister hotels that will forever be treasured in my memory. When life becomes frighteningly familiar and frenzied, I escape into the bucolic calm of these hotels and their environs, as the videos below indicate.

In Cornwall, there is Hotel Tresanton, “a cluster of houses on the edge of St Mawes, one of the prettiest fishing villages in Cornwall. All rooms have views across the sea towards St Anthony’s lighthouse. Tresanton has 30 rooms and suites, a restaurant with large terraces, a room for private parties, a dogs’ bar, a beach club and a private sailing boat.”

In Devon, there is Hotel Endsleigh, a “historic house set in 100 acres of fairytale woodland, follies and grottos created by Humphry Repton. The Duke of Bedford, who owned a third of Devon, chose this spot for his fishing and hunting lodge. Hidden on the edge of the Dartmoor, many of the 18 bedrooms have magnificent views of the gardens, the river Tamar and beyond into Cornwall.”

On the Holy Spirit

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. (John 14:16-17)

My associate pastor and I are facilitating a reading group on the domestic creed of Anglicans known as the 39 Articles of Religion. We meet twice a month at a pub. Call it “theology on tap.” The last meeting focused on Article V:

The Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son, is of one substance, majesty, and glory, with the Father and the Son, very and eternal God.

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Single procession

Even though I have taken a substantial amount of undergraduate coursework in Bible and theology, I never understood a controversy on the Holy Spirit that divides the Western church (Catholics and Protestants), which affirms that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (double procession), from the Eastern church (Orthodoxy), which affirms that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone (single procession). Is this a distinction with a difference—or needless theological hairsplitting?

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Double procession

Anglicans recite the Nicene Creed, saying: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” This formulation contains the filoque clause. In Latin, filoque means “and [from] the Son.” The conversation in our reading group resulted in a breakthrough. I now understand why the Western church correctly insists upon double procession for two reasons. First, double procession honors all members of the Triune God, whereas single procession seems to bracket out the Son. Second, double procession reveals a sacramental picture that instructs us about love. A sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible reality. In this case, there is an analogy between the divine family and human family. Just as the Father is the lover, the Son is the beloved, and the Spirit is the bond (or offspring) of their love, so too, the husband is the lover, the wife is the beloved, and the child is the bond of their love. Such a picture tells me that love is requited, love is sacrificial, love is multipolar, and love is generative.

What hath poetry to do with the Church?

Here are some favorite passages that answer this question.

O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness!
—Psalm 96:9

In the domain of perceptible images, the artist keeps an eye constantly on the original and never allows himself to be sidetracked or to have his attention divided by any other visible object. If he does this, then one may presume to say that whatever the object he wishes to depict will, so to speak, produce a second one, so that one entity can be taken for the other, though in essence they are actually different. It is thus with those artists who love beauty in the mind. They make an image of it within their minds. The concentration and the persistence of their contemplation of this fragrant, secret beauty enables them to produce an exact likeness of God. And so these divine artists never cease to shape the power of their minds along the lines of a loveliness which is conceptual, transcendent, and fragrant, and if they practice the virtues called for by imitation of God it is not “to be seen by men,” as scripture puts it. Rather, they sacredly behold those infinitely sacred things of the Church disguised in the [rite of the] ointment, as in an image. That is why they too sacredly disguise whatever is sacred and virtuously godlike in their mind, imitating and depicting God. They gaze solely on conceptual originals. Not only do they not look at dissimilar things, but they refuse to be dragged down toward the sight of them. And as one would expect of such people, they yearn only for what is truly beautiful and right and not for empty appearances. They do not gaze after that glory so stupidly praised by the mob. Imitating God, as they do, they can tell the difference between real beauty and real evil. They are truly divine images of that infinitely divine fragrance. Because this is the truly fragrant, they have no time to return to the counterfeits which beguile the mob, and it truly impresses only those souls which are true images of itself.

—Dionysius the Areopagite

The Church, which was once the mother of poets no less than of saints, during the last two centuries has relinquished to aliens the chief glories of poetry, if the chief glories of holiness she has preserved for her own. The palm and the laurel, Dominic and Dante, sanctity and song, grew together in her soil: she has retained the palm, but forgone the laurel. And for this if song is itself responsible, we Catholics are not irresponsible. Poetry in its widest sense and when not professedly irreligious, has been too much and too long among many Catholics either misprized or distrusted; too much and too generally the feeling has been that it is at best superfluous, at worst pernicious, most often dangerous. Once poetry was, as she should be, the lesser sister and helpmate of the Church; the minister to the mind, as the Church was to the soul. But poetry sinned, poetry fell; and in place of lovingly reclaiming her, Catholicism cast her from the door to follow the feet of her pagan seducer. The separation has been ill for poetry; it has not been well for religion.

—Francis Thompson

The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb. Better witness is borne to the Lord by the splendor of holiness and art which have arisen in the community of believers than by clever excuses which apologetics has come up with to justify the dark sides which, sadly, are so frequent in the Church’s human history. If the Church is to continue to transform and humanize the world, how can she dispense with beauty in her liturgies, that beauty which is so closely linked with love and with the radiance of the Resurrection? No. Christians must not be too easily satisfied. They must make their Church into a place where beauty—and hence truth—is at home. Without this the world will become the first circle of Hell.

—Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

What hath poetry to do with theory?

From George Santayana’s Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, Goethe:

There is a kind of sensualism or aestheticism that has decreed in our day that theory is not poetical; as if all the images and emotions that enter a cultivated mind were not saturated with theory. The prevalence of such a sensualism or aestheticism would alone suffice to explain the impotence of the arts. The life of theory is not less human or less emotional than the life of sense; it is more typically human and more keenly emotional. Philosophy is a more intense sort of experience than common life is, just as pure and subtle music, heard in retirement, is something keener and more intense than the howling of storms or the rumble of cities. For this reason philosophy, when a poet is not mindless, enters inevitably into his poetry, since it has entered into his life; or rather, the detail of things and the detail of ideas pass equally into his verse, when both alike lie in the path that has led him to his ideal. To object to theory in poetry would be like objecting to words there; for words, too, are symbols without the sensuous character of the things they stand for; and yet it is only by the net of new connections which words throw over things, in recalling them, that poetry arises at all. Poetry is an attenuation, a rehandling, an echo of crude experience; it is itself a theoretic vision of things at arm’s length. 

God’s agapeic and erotic love for the Church

To my surprise, Reformed philosopher Alvin Plantinga departs from traditional belief in divine impassibility, arguing instead for the passions of God in his magnum opus, Warranted Christian Belief:

[Sexual eros] is a sign or type of a deeper reality, a kind of love for God of which we now just have hints and intimations. It is also a sign, symbol, or type of God’s love – not just of the love God’s children will have someday for him but of the love he also has for them. . . . Scripture regularly compares God’s love for his people and Christ’s love for his church to the love of a groom for his new bride. Now a widely shared view of God has been that he is impassable, without desire or feeling or passion, unable to feel sorrow at the sad condition of his world and the suffering of his children, and equally unable to feel joy, delight, longing, or yearning. The reason for so thinking, roughly, is that in the tradition originating in Greek philosophy, passions were thought of (naturally enough) as passive, something that happens to you, something you undergo, rather than something you actively do. You are subject to anger, love, joy, and all the rest. God, however, is pure act; he doesn’t ‘undergo’ anything at all; he acts, and is never merely passive; and he isn’t subject to anything. As far as eros is concerned, furthermore, there is an additional reason for thinking it isn’t part of God’s life: longing and yearning signify need and incompleteness. One who yearns for something doesn’t yet have it, and needs it, or at any rate thinks he needs it; God is of course paradigmatically complete and needs nothing beyond himself. How, then, could he be subject to eros? God’s love, according to this tradition, is exclusively agape, benevolence, a completely other-regarding, magnanimous love in which there is mercy but no element of desire. God loves us, but there is nothing we can do for him; he wishes nothing from us. 

On this particular point I think we must take leave of the tradition; this is one of those places where it has paid too much attention to Greek philosophy and too little to the Bible. I believe God can and does suffer; his capacity for suffering exceeds ours in the same measure this knowledge exceeds ours. Christ’s suffering was no charade; he was prepared to endure the agonies of the cross and of hell itself (“My God, my God, why you have forsaken me?”). God the Father was prepared to endure the anguish of seeing his Son, the second person of the trinity, consigned to the bitterly cruel and shameful death of the cross. And isn’t the same true for other passions? “There is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (Luke 15:7); is God himself to be excluded from this rejoicing?

Similarly for eros: “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:5). The bridegroom rejoicing over his bride doesn’t love her with a merely agapeic love. He isn’t like her benevolent elder brother (although Christ is also said to be our elder brother). He desires and longs for something outside himself, namely union with his beloved. The church is the bride of Christ, not his little sister. He is not her benevolent elder brother, but her husband, lover. These scriptural images imply that God isn’t impassive, and that his love for us is not exclusively agapeic. They suggest that God’s love for his people involves an erotic element of desire: he desires the right kind of response from us, and union with us, just as we desire union with him.   

Fancy that feeds on the study of real things

George Santayana (1863-1952) wrote Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, Goethe, which his student, T. S. Eliot, described as “a brilliant and admirable little book.” In the chapter on Dante, he writes:

To think straight, to see things as they are, or as they might naturally be, interested him more than to fancy things impossible; and in this he shows, not want of imagination, but true imaginative power and imaginative maturity. It is those of us who are too feeble to conceive and master the real world, or too cowardly to face it, that run away from it to those cheap fictions that alone seem to us fine enough for poetry or for religion. In Dante the fancy is not empty or arbitrary; it is serious, fed on the study of real things. It adopts their tendency and divines their true destiny. His art is, in the original Greek sense, an imitation or rehearsal of nature, an anticipation of fate. 

This reminds me of another Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor, and her claim about the vocation of a novelist:

A novelist is, first of all, a person who has been given a talent to a particular thing. Every serious novelist is trying to portray reality as it manifests itself in our concrete, sensual life, and he can’t do this unless he has been given the initial instrument, the talent, and unless he respects the talent, as such. . . . This kind of fiction wrier is always hotly in pursuit of the real.

Precisely because “human kind / Cannot bear very much reality,” as Eliot says in his poem “Four Quartets,” we need those poets and novelists who are “hostly in pursuit of the real,” otherwise we will be prone to “tidy up reality” and retreat into “cheap fictions.”