Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Prince George, A Joy To Us All


People go nuts about the British royal family - Britons, Americans, and probably a bunch of other folks.  What's up with that?

Serendipitously, the daily readings in The Business of Heaven (a collection of selections from C. S. Lewis's writings posthumously arranged by biographer, Walter Hooper) for the eve and day of the public revelation of Prince George's name happen to be selections touching on the subject of monarchy.
July 23rd
We Britons should rejoice that we have contrived to reach much legal democracy (we still need more of the economic) without losing our ceremonial monarchy. For there, right in the midst of our lives, is that which satisfies the craving for inequality, and acts as a permanent reminder that medicine is not food. Hence a man's reaction to monarchy is a kind of test. Monarchy can easily be 'debunked'; but watch the faces, mark well the accents, of the debunkers. These are the men whose taproot in Eden has been cut: whom no rumour of the polyphony, the dance, can reach - men to whom pebbles laid in a row are more beautiful than an arch. Yet even if they desire mere equality they cannot reach it. Where men are forbidden to honour a king they honour rnillionaires, athletes or film stars instead: even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.
A desire for monarchy, even ceremonial monarchy across the ocean, is a desire basic to our humanity.  Man was created as subject. Kingship, stewardship, servanthood, these are natural to creation.  We champion democracy, and for many good reasons, but we never succeed in being fully democratic (thankfully).  Lewis points out how we raise up kings wherever we can, denying it all the while.  A ceremonial monarchy is a gift that gives proper shape to our God given need for hierarchy.

In the second selection he uses a critique of Christianity as an introduction to speak more on the significance of monarchy.
July 24th
Corineus compared modern Christianity with the modern English monarchy: the forms of kingship have been retained, but the reality has been abandoned.... 'Why not cut the cord?' asks Corineus. 'Everything would be much easier if you would free your thought from this vestigial mythology.' To be sure: far easier. Life would be far easier for the mother of an invalid child if she put it into an Institution and adopted someone else's healthy baby instead. Life would be far easier to many a man if he abandoned the woman he has actually fallen in love with and married someone else because she is more suitable. The only defect of the healthy baby and the suitable woman is that they leave out the patient's only reason for bothering about a child or wife at all. 'Would not conversation be much more rational than dancing?' said Jane Austen's Miss Bingley. 'Much more rational,' replied Mr Bingley, 'but much less like a ball.' In the same way, it would be much more rational to abolish the English monarchy. But how if, by doing so, you leave out the one element in our State which matters most? How if the monarchy is the channel through which all the vital elements of citizenship - loyalty, the consecration of secular life, the hierarchical principle, splendour, ceremony, continuity - still trickle down to irrigate the dustbowl of modem economic Statecraft?
I think the implication here for Christianity, and especially the cold, dying, high church of England of Lewis's day (and today), is that even in its present state God still preserves the world through the church.  And to toss the stateliness that remains for the sake of internal consistency would be tossing the last vital part.

But for today's purpose I include it as another comment of validation to those out there who are excited about royal weddings and royal babies, and great names like George.  Don't let the de-bunkers get you down.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Clear Voice Along the Beam

Michael Ward, in Planet Narnia (pg. 17 and 18), remarks on C.S. Lewis's great interest in Samuel Alexander's antithesis between "enjoyment" and "contemplation."  One of Lewis's biographers, Walter Hooper, writes that the influence of Alexander's book, 'Space, Time, and Deity' (in which the concept is explained) upon Lewis was "overwhelming."

The difference between enjoyment and contemplation is perhaps best described by Lewis in a short essay he wrote called Meditation in a Toolshed (link).  Here are the opening paragraphs for those who don't care to be bothered by the whole thing.
I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it. 
Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences. 
But this is only a very simple example of the difference between looking at and looking along. A young man meets a girl. The whole world looks different when he sees her. Her voice reminds him of something he has been trying to remember all his life, and ten minutes casual chat with her is more precious than all the favours that all other women in the world could grant. lie is, as they say, “in love”. Now comes a scientist and describes this young man's experience from the outside. For him it is all an affair of the young man's genes and a recognised biological stimulus. That is the difference between looking along the sexual impulse and looking at it. 
When you have got into the habit of making this distinction you will find examples of it all day long. 
Looking at versus looking along (or within).  Lewis goes on to explain how both looking at and looking along, contemplating and enjoying, are not only necessary but also inescapable.  His main point, I think, is to criticize the modern thinking that is almost exclusively contemplative - a perspective that is often quite negative toward actions, statements, and values.  He says, "The people who look at things have had it all their own way; the people who look along things have simply been brow-beaten... but the period of brow-beating has got to end."

A few years ago I wrote out some similar frustrations.  I did not have a great illustrative picture to go with it.  Nor were my words nearly so coherent judging by the lack of response I got from the people I shared it with.  I took issue with "case-making," the way in which we respond to questions or criticism toward our faith by making a case for our positions or values.  I suggested that this case-making frame of mind, and the response that it engenders, often works to invalidate the object of the case we are trying to make by justifying the context the questions or attacks come from.  In other words, to make a case is fundamentally grounded in playing by their rules.  Or, to use  Lewis's terms, if someone questions by "looking at the beam," and we respond with a "looking at" response, the whole enterprise will never be anything but "looking at" - from outside the beam.  If we concede the toolshed as the proving ground from the get-go then the trees and sun are forever out of reach.

I agree with Lewis that the period of brow-beating has to end, but I would also add that we need to concede that we have bought into it ourselves, and leave it behind. Much of how the Protestant world speaks seems to be contemplative in its language and strategy, at least the part of the Protestant world that fancies itself intelligent and relevant.   I believe that this is, in large part, because the Protestant churches have been about making cases since their beginning, against the RC church, and against themselves.  And it is no help that our Western education and academic system is thoroughly one that is about looking at the beam.  It is what we are trained in.  It is the air we breath.  And it has become a smog that has choked out enjoyment.

The hard part isn't so much about recognizing the great imbalance between contemplative vs. enjoyment.  Or recognizing the dangers of that imbalance.  The hard part is learning how to be people that can speak clearly and confidently from a place along the beam.  How do we enjoy better, and communicate our enjoyment with delight and gravitas?  I know that in my own case, in the rare times I succeed, I quickly step all over it with at-the-beam talk.

Approaching Paul

I am listening to Luke Timothy Johnson's lectures on The Apostle Paul.  In the first lecture he sets up his lecture series by detailing the problems and apparent contradictions within Paul's canon and within the person of Paul himself.  He ends the lecture by explaining his approach to the subject of Paul and his writings.

He says,

  1. Paul is a primarily to be understood a moral teacher.  Meaning he isn't writing theology, he is writing with concern for the moral behavior of his recipients.  This doesn't mean he isn't theological, just that his writing isn't meant as pure theology and ought to be read accordingly.
  2. Paul's letters are written to communities.  His concern for the moral behavior of his recipients is a concern for the well-being and direction of communities.
  3. Paul's writing style must be understood as expressions of rhetoric into individual contexts.  This is counter to a tendency to read him as moderns tend to read authors, as expressers of ego, universal and consistent across all letters. 

These strike me as sound angles of approach to Paul.  It also strikes me as being virtually opposite to the approach of many Paul enthusiasts.  We tend to read Paul as the theologian of the early Church.  And we tend to read him as almost exclusively speaking of and about individual faith.   The last one is less of an issue.  Paul does refer to himself a lot.  A lot.  So reading personality and biography into the his expression makes sense.  But understanding his rhetorical style, the rhetorical style of the age, and the context into which he was writing for each letter and situation is essential to understanding Paul's thought.