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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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

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.   

Evil is the soul’s choice of the not-God

Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957), a graduate of Oxford University, was a British author, playwright, and scholar. She was a member of the famous “Inklings,” an informal group of writers that included C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkein, and Charles Williams. If you are interested in literary treatments of Satan, then her essay, “The Faust Legend and the Idea of the Devil,” is essential reading because she evaluates the Satan of Dante, Marlowe, Milton, and Goethe. She begins her essay acknowledging “one of the great difficulties about writing a book or play about the Devil is to prevent that character from stealing the show.” She continues:

It is not, of course, surprising that the devil should appear attractive, or that he should be made to appear so in a work of the imagination. It is precisely the Devil’s business to appear attractive; that is the whole meaning of temptation to sin. And unless the artist conveys something of this attraction, his Devil will be a mere turnip-ghost, exciting either boredom or derisive laughter, and in no way conveying or communicating the power of evil. But it is important artistically as well as theologically to ascertain whether the artist is able to view his own creation critically, or whether he has fallen, consciously or unconsciously, under the power of his own spellbinding. 

Dante, according to Sayers, is the most successful artist at viewing his Satan critically, whereas Marlowe, Milton, and Goethe fall under the power of their own spellbinding; they are guilty of what she calls “the Promethean setup – the sympathetic picture of the sad, proud sufferer defying omnipotence.”

Here is my favorite passage from the essay on evil:

Evil is “the price that all things (i.e., all created things – God is not a ‘thing’) pay for being” – that is, for existing in created and material form. There is, for them, along with the reality of God, the possibility of not-God. For things inorganic, this is only known as change and not as evil; for creatures organic but not self-conscious, there are both change and pain – and here there is a very great mystery, which we are scarcely in a position to solve because we know nothing of what pain may be like to the unself-conscious organism. But to the self-conscious creature, the not-God is known as change, as pain, and also as intellectual error and moral evil; and it is at this point that it actually becomes evil in the profoundest sense of the word because it can be embraced and made active by the will. The possibility of evil exists from the moment that a creature is made that can love and do good because it chooses and not because it is unable to do anything else. The actuality of evil exists from the moment that the choice is exercised in the wrong direction. Sin (moral evil) is the deliberate choice of the not-God. And pride, as the Church has consistently pointed out, is the root of it; i.e., the refusal to accept the creature status; the making of the difference between self and God into an antagonism against God. Satan, as Milton rightly shows, “thinks himself impaired,” and in that moment he chooses that evil shall be his good.

That is what the orthodox Catholic doctrine is. . . Evil is the soul’s choice of the not-God. The corollary is that damnation, or hell, is the permanent choice of the not-God. God does not (in the monstrous old-fashioned phrase) “send” anybody to hell; hell is that state of the soul in which its choice becomes obdurate and fixed; the punishment (so to call it) of that soul is to remain eternally in the state that it has chosen. 

Life is like a wheel

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Images drive ideas. That is the most salient take-away from my writing instruction at journalism school. When my pastor quoted a letter from Catholic priest, Henri J. M. Nouwen, the well-chosen image pressed itself on my mind, communicating a deep spiritual truth.

Life is like a wheel. God is the hub. By focusing on the hub of life you come closer to God. The closer you come to the center, the closer you also come to each other. Everyone travels on a different spoke, but as long as we travel to God we travel to each other. What about that image for a bike specialist?!

Source: Henri J. M. Nouwen, Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life

A world of endless cross-reference

How do you see the world? That question arose as I read Rowan William’s New Statesman article, “Everything Is Illuminated,” on the Welsh painter and artist, David Jones (1895-1974). According to Jones, modern man views the world as isolated atoms, whereas pre-modern man viewed the world as symbolic connection. A sacramental theology will be needed for us to perceive the “endless cross-reference” again.

We are living, [David Jones] wrote, in a culture where objects are thought of in terms of their usefulness. An electric light bulb is designed to illuminate human dwellings or workplaces; if an artist wants to evoke something about light more generally, the light bulb is not a good metaphor, because it is merely a functional object. It is what it is because of the job it has to do. But we need images that are allowed to resonate more freely because they are not determined in this way – fires, stars, the sun. How then does the artist avoid “a kind of invalidity”, a corrupting distance from the actual world of his or her experience?

Jones often wrote about “the Break”, the cultural moment somewhere around the beginning of modernity when the European world-view shifted decisively. Instead of a world where things were unique but linked by an unimaginable density of connection and cross-reference, we had created one in which things were unconnected but endlessly repeatable and where everything could be exchanged in the market for an agreed equivalent: above all, for money. Jones saw his work – both as a visual artist and as a poet – as a sustained protest against the Break and an effort to show that the older picture could, after all, be brought to life.

Born in 1895, he had family roots that helped to shape his interests from the beginning. His mother’s father had been a London shipwright and his father’s origins were in North Wales. Both Wales and London kept a central place in his imagination throughout his life. It was not surprising that when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 1st London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His 1937 masterpiece, the astonishing book-length poem In Parenthesis, describes the experience of foot soldiers in the First World War, revisiting his own experiences up to and including the disastrous engagement at Mametz Wood in July 1916. Jones was wounded in the leg during the battle (a wound described by the medical orderly as “a beautiful blighty” – serious enough to get him off the front line, yet not life-threatening). But he was back in the trenches in a matter of months.

The traumas of war stayed with him to the end. In Parenthesis, which he struggled with painfully over many years, is one of the most unsparing accounts of the life of infantry soldiers in the trenches and of the horrors of the Somme; but at the same time it meditates on any number of connections – echoes of conflict, from Troy to the struggles of the British against the Saxons in the 6th century to Malory’s Arthurian narratives, and, woven through it all, the founding act of bloodshed that is the death of Christ. Jones was raised an Anglican, but by the time he wrote In Parenthesis he was a Catholic, and believed passionately that the Church’s sacramental theology was what made sense of a world of symbolic connection, where nothing existed as an atom but where everything enriched the perception of everything else. For him, all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do.