A priest recently joked that he tells middle schoolers getting too big for their britches “you know, God didn’t have to create you.” The audience laughed, and the priest observed that while that might sound unkind on the surface, it signifies something quite the opposite. Continue reading Remembering That We Forget
When one loves, one does not calculate. – St. Therese of Lisieux
Gave me cookie, got you cookie! We’re even, we’re even, Schmidt! – Nick Miller
New Girl has disappointed me lately with the way that it treats (or trivializes) eros. But a recent episode surprised me with a more sincere look at love between friends. Continue reading “Gave me cookie, got you cookie!”
“Glory be to God for dappled things,” I thought, pausing on a run in the woods near my house. The late afternoon sun came slanting through the grey tree trunks and lit up the leaves like bits of stained-glass in a church window. All around me, layers of fallen leaves obscured the paths so that I seemed to have walked into a watercolor. Like a watercolor, although all seemed still, a hint of movement hovered around the edges of things—as if the artist had just, the very moment before, lifted his brush and let the water and pigments seep into the page.
“Glory be to God for dappled things” is the first line of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem Pied Beauty. One of my old professors regularly admonished us about the importance of getting some poetry permanently into our heads, and, although my current store is pretty pitiful, most of Pied Beauty is in there. Here’s the whole thing:
Rather than do a close-reading of this poem, I just want to briefly consider how this poem helped me yesterday afternoon, and how similar works can help us all.
In an essay titled Learning How To See Again, the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper warns that “man’s ability to see is in decline.” One reason for this, he argues, is that “there is too much to see!” Visual noise—the constant input from videogames and television shows and billboards and magazines and now cell phones and iPads etc. etc.—can obscure our perception and make us more and more “totally passive consumers of mass-produced goods.” St. Thomas Aquinas, echoing Aristotle, teaches that “nothing is in the intellect that is not first in the senses.” What, then, are the consequences for our intellects when we spend more time looking at manufactured or artificial reality rather than the real thing?
Pieper doesn’t use this particular term, but he essentially suggests that our senses can atrophy. We can become like the people of Jeremiah’s prophecy “who have eyes, and see not: and ears, and hear not” and who therefore lack understanding.
So what is to be done?
Besides abstaining when we can from the noise, Pieper says that the most immediate and effective remedy is “to be active oneself in artistic creation, producing shapes and forms for the eye to see.” The mere attempt to create an artistic form “compels the artist to take a fresh look at the visible reality; it requires authentic and personal observation.” I am reminded of my art professor at George Mason, who would always tell us (and sometimes shout at us) to “stop inventing!” and instead “look harder” and draw only what we actually see. When you’re trying to draw a human face, for example, it’s so easy to fall back and draw what you think you see—which is some combination of generic ideals and cartoon images—rather than what you really see. People’s faces aren’t really circular, their eyes aren’t really symmetrical little ovals, and the whites of their eyes are almost never actually white! But you have to slow down, and I mean really slow down, to be able to see that. Then you can begin trying to honestly communicate what you see.
What applies to painted or sculpted images also applies to verbal images. When I ran into the woods, the rich beauty of the scene literally stopped me in my tracks. I tried to think of words fit to describe what I saw, but it’s difficult to slow down enough to really observe. That’s where Hopkins’s poem helped me out. “Dappled things . . . fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls . . . whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) . . . adazzle, dim . . .”– those phrases jumped out of my memory right into the woods around me. Hopkins’s vision must have been so intense, and so patient, for him to have created such personal and yet authentic verbal images. Hopkins’s observations also led me to look more closely and carefully at my own surroundings.
The visions of artists like Hopkins can challenge us, like my art professor, to look harder and to notice more. Art that comes from sincere investigation, and that notices those things that are small and often overlooked, can help us to slow down and to see more and to speak more truthfully about reality.
This week, I went to a thought-provoking presentation on Plato’s critique of government sponsored by the Institute of Catholic Culture. You can watch the whole thing here soon.
But this post isn’t going to be about government. Something else caught my attention at the talk. At one point in his critique of government, Plato describes a man who:
lives from day to day indulging the appetite of the hour; and sometimes he is lapped in drink and strains of the flute; then he becomes a water-drinker, and tries to get thin; then he takes a turn at gymnastics; sometimes idling and neglecting everything, then once more living the life of a philosopher; often he is busy with politics, and starts to his feet and says and does whatever comes into his head; and, if he is emulous of any one who is a warrior, off he is in that direction, or of men of business, once more in that. His life has neither law nor order; and this distracted existence he terms joy and bliss and freedom, and so he goes on.
When the speaker read this quote, I first thought about how well the words apply to New Girl’s Nick Miller, and how Nick so often exemplifies Northrop Frye’s descriptions of characters stuck in the ironic mode. But then my friend who was also at the talk said “well, that description is sort of every man” and I’ve been thinking about the truth of that over the last several days.
The person Plato describes isn’t particularly terrible. I picture him like a tumbleweed—off in one direction, then another, but always subject to the whims of the wind. In Heretics, G.K. Chesterton points out that
The more dead and dry and dusty a thing is the more it travels about . . . Fertile things are somewhat heavier, like the heavy fruit trees on the pregnant mud of the Nile. In the heated idleness of youth we were all rather inclined to quarrel with the implication of that proverb which says that a rolling stone gathers no moss. We were inclined to ask, “Who wants to gather moss, except silly old ladies?” But for all that we begin to perceive that the proverb is right. The rolling stone rolls echoing from rock to rock, but the rolling stone is dead. The moss is silent because the moss is alive.
The person Plato describes as living a “distracted existence” is like Chesterton’s rolling, lifeless stone or the dry and dusty tumbleweed. The person Plato describes moves in no particular, willful direction, but is rather the subject (or slave) of changing, hourly appetites that pull him this way and that. True freedom, it seems, has something to do with putting down roots.
When I first came to Virginia a few years ago, I avoided putting down any roots. I started at George Mason following a sort of strange period in my life. I felt lost, and I also felt that I didn’t want to be found—like I didn’t want to be known. I guess I didn’t want to be known because I didn’t want to be found out; I was ashamed of recent choices I’d made. So I planned to duck into Mason, finish my last two years of undergrad, and duck out again. I would go to church and enjoy Mass but would avoid getting to know anyone and would certainly not go down for coffee and donuts afterwards. I would attend some interesting lecture, get my little intellectual stimulation, and then leave without talking to anyone. I tried not to put down roots and I avoided becoming a part of the place I was living in.
In an essay called “The Sense of Place,” Wallace Stegner considers the condition of such a non-placed or displaced person. It fits how I felt a few years ago, but also, Stegner suggests, this condition affects our country in general:
Adventurous, restless, seeking, asocial or antisocial, the displaced American persists by the million . . . He exists to some extent in all of us, the inevitable by-product of our history: the New World transient. . . . To the placed person he seems hasty, shallow, and restless. He has a current like the Platte, a mile wide and inch deep. As a species, he is non-territorial, he lacks a stamping ground. Acquainted with many places, he is rooted in none. Culturally he is a discarder or transplanter, not a builder or conserver. He even seems to like and value his rootlessness, though to the placed person he shows the symptoms of nutritional deficiency, as if he suffered from some obscure scurvy or pellagra of the soul.
Stegner’s displaced person and Plato’s distracted man strike me as one in the same person. Interestingly, Plato’s distracted man appears in a section on the dangers of democracy—where Plato considers in what ways the democratic state and the democratic man are prone to corruption—and Stegner sees the displaced person as a particularly American problem. Both the distracted man and the displaced man equate freedom with escape from or avoidance of ties that bind men to particular people and places and values. Stegner’s displaced man “even seems to like and value his rootlessness;” Plato’s distracted man, living a life without law or order, terms his “distracted existence” “joy and bliss and freedom.” Yet something is lacking. As Stegner suggests, there is something deficient about this form of freedom through isolation; it does not nourish the soul. The story of the good Samaritan is not “well I’ll leave you alone and you leave me alone and we’ll all get along fine.”
Indifferent to, or contemptuous of, or afraid to commit ourselves to, our physical and social surroundings, always hopeful of something better, hooked on change, a lot of us have never stayed in one place long enough to learn it, or have learned it only to leave it. In our displaced condition we are not unlike the mythless man that Carl Jung wrote about, who lives “like one uprooted, having no true link either with the past, or with the ancestral life which continues within him, or yet with contemporary human society. He . . . lives a life of his own, sunk in a subjective mania of his own devising, which he believes to be the newly discovered truth.”
Freedom is not something we find doing whatever we want whenever we want in isolation and anonymity—that becomes a prison, a “subjective mania” of our own devising. We find freedom when we honor the significant bonds we share with others and with the places we exist in—and not just the physical places you can point to on a map but places like your place in the mystical body of Christ. Our Lord’s love for us binds us to one another and to God, and in that bond is freedom and sustenance for our souls.
That’s something I’ve been learning over the last few years. Putting down roots doesn’t happen overnight, but it is a work in progress.
“Can a man who’s warm understand one who’s freezing?”
This is the question pondered by Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, a prisoner at a forced-labor camp in the Soviet Gulag system. Shukhov is the imagined narrator of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Though Shukhov may be fictional, his experiences come out of Solzhenitsyn’s own real-life experience. Arrested in 1945 for criticizing (in private letters to a friend) Joseph Stalin’s military decisions, Solzhenitsyn was interrogated, beaten, and sentenced to eight years in various Soviet labor camps.
If Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s name is not familiar to you, it should be. Once a loyal Red Army captain, Solzhenitsyn’s experiences in prison and later in exile led him to reject the communism into which he had been indoctrinated. Although it cost him dearly—his works were seized, he was expelled from the state-sanctioned writers’ union, he was categorized as a “non-person,” the KGB attempted to assassinate him—Solzhenitsyn continued to write and call attention to Soviet atrocities. In 1970, Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The honor, it turns out, gave Solzhenitsyn little protection at home: in 1974, the Soviet government arrested him, stripped him of his citizenship, and deported him.
Do Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and the Soviet communist system he spoke out against concern us today? Before you answer the question, consider this: According to a survey conducted by Newsweek and reported on in 2011, 73% of Americans could not identify communism as the ideology America opposed during the Cold War. Judging by this statistic, I’m not sure that Solzhenitsyn or his experiences concern us very much today at all. But should they? That brings us back to Ivan Denisovich Shukhov’s question: Can a man who’s warm understand one who’s freezing?
Or to put it another way, as Solzhenitsyn did himself in a speech in New York in 1975:
Is it then possible or impossible to transmit the experience of those who have suffered to those who have yet to suffer? Can one part of humanity learn from the bitter experience of another or can it not? Is it possible or impossible to warn someone of danger?
Solzhenitsyn suggests that the experience of those who have suffered can serve as a warning to those who are not yet suffering. Maybe it seems like we don’t need to be warned about communism—the USSR collapsed in 1991—but the lies about the human person that Soviet communism grew out of preceded the USSR and will likely plague men until the end of history. I have often heard (and repeated this myself) that “communism is good in theory but it just can’t work in the real world.” This is simply not true. Communism is not “good in theory.” It rejects an objective standard of good and evil; it treats men as objects to be manipulated; it scoffs at God and presumes to redeem the world and usher in a sort of heaven-on-earth through a coercive politics. In the last century, these ideas manifested themselves in the communism of Marx and Lenin. But the root temptation to reject God’s authority lurks in many other ideologies and movements and indeed in our own hearts.
St. Peter thus exhorts us in his first epistle:
Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world.
Echoing Christ’s call to take up our cross and follow him, St. Peter suggests that one way in which we resist the father of lies is by sharing in the “experiences of suffering” endured by our “brethren.” This requires that we recognize what G.K. Chesterton calls “the terrible secret” that “men are men—which is another way of saying that they are brothers.” Here is where the importance of stories like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich comes in.
The statistics of suffering may shock us—Solzhenitsyn estimates some 60 million were killed by the Soviet regime—but we cannot empathize with numbers. We empathize with those who suffer by learning their stories. The first time I read Ivan Denisovich, passages like this made me realize that I had never been truly tired or hungry in my life:
Since he’d been in the camps Shukhov had thought many a time of the food they used to eat in the village — whole frying pans full of potatoes, porridge by the caldron, and, in the days before the kolkhoz, great hefty lumps of meat. Milk they used to lap up till their bellies were bursting. But he knew better now that he’d been inside. He’d learned to keep his whole mind on the food he was eating. Like now he was taking tiny little nibbles of bread, softening it with his tongue, and drawing in his cheeks as he sucked it. Dry black bread it was, but like that nothing could be tastier. How much had he eaten in the last eight or nine years? Nothing. And how hard had he worked? Don’t ask.
Though I’ve never experienced anything like this hunger or exhaustion, I found that the more I read, the more I could relate to Shukhov—the more I understood him to be my brother. I think many of us can feel a kinship with Shukhov in passages like this one:
“Thanks be to Thee, O God, another day over!” . . .
Alyoshka heard Shukhov thank God out loud, and looked around.
“There you are, Ivan Denisovich, your soul is asking to be allowed to pray to God. Why not let it have its way, eh?”
Shukhov shot a glance at him: the light in his eyes was like candle flame. Shukhov sighed.
“Because, Alyoshka, prayers are like petitions — either they don’t get through at all, or else it’s ‘complaint rejected.'”
So: can a man who’s warm understand a man who’s freezing? Not completely, and certainly not easily, but the answer can be “yes.” The answer is yes if we make the effort to learn the stories and if we pay attention to the story-tellers who are often prophets. “I have been in the dragon’s belly, in the red burning belly of the dragon,” Solzhenitsyn said. “He wasn’t able to digest me. He threw me up. I have come to you as a witness to what it’s like in there, in the dragon’s belly.”
Can one part of humanity learn from the bitter experience of another? Again, the answer can be yes if we properly meditate on those bitter experiences. After all, that is what we do when we pray the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Holy Rosary. Importantly, we do not meditate on those mysteries in the hopes of avoiding them. Rather, we pray that we may “imitate what they contain.” In this life, to some degree, we will suffer. What we can learn from prophets like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, what we seek to imitate in Sorrowful Mysteries of our Lord, is how to, in solidarity with our neighbors, offer our sufferings to God.
This coming Wednesday, November 7th, marks the tragic anniversary of the Lenin-led Bolshevik/communist take-over of Russia in 1917. (Russia used the Julian calendar at the time, so this is often referred to as the October Revolution or Red October.) As we just concluded October’s “month of the Holy Rosary,” it’s an especially good time to reflect on the decades of sorrowful mysteries that communism inflicted on the world and on what we can still learn from the suffering of our brethren. If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, I highly recommend picking up a copy of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It’s a small but powerful portrait of life under (and in spite of) the lies of communism.
One of Shakespeare’s most poetic speeches is spoken by a character who spends half the play turned halfway into a donkey. The play is A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the character is the very foolish Nick Bottom. Always pay attention to Shakespeare’s fools. Often, they possess wisdom which escapes the wits of more refined men.
The main plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream involves four young people having troubles with love. In defiance of the authority figures, they run off to the forest and, unknowingly, into the realm of the fairy king and queen. The fairies try playing matchmakers and merry madness ensues. Meanwhile, in the ordered world of the city, the duke’s wedding night approaches. And as a comic sort of sideshow, Shakespeare adds a band of rustics to the mix who are preparing a play in honor of the duke’s marriage.
The men have chosen to act out the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe. This is an absurd choice for the duke’s wedding party: Pyramus and Thisbe are star-crossed lovers who both end up committing suicide. Shakespeare pokes fun at himself and his playwriting profession in his portrayal of these lovable fools. I highly recommend that you watch the scene below in which Shakespeare introduces us to the troupe. Plays are meant to be performed and watched, and it’s hard to pick up on the humor if you only read the text.
If Peter Quince is the bumbling ringleader, then Nick Bottom is the main attraction in the whole silly circus.
The actors go off to practice in the woods where they, too, get caught in the fairies’ mischief-making. In the middle of rehearsal, a fairy named Puck enters and decides to turn Bottom’s head into the head of a donkey. Bottom’s friends flee from him in fright, but poor Bottom has no idea why. He cannot see his donkey’s head, nor can any of us (except rarely) see our own absurdities. Bottom concludes that his friends must be playing a trick on him. “I see their knavery: this is to make an ass of me,” he says, unaware of how truly he speaks.
Abandoned in the woods, Bottom sings a song to himself and happens to wake the fairy queen. Earlier, the fairy king cast a spell to make the queen “madly dote upon the next live creature” she sees. Consequently, Bottom—donkey’s head and all—finds himself swept through the midsummer night with the queen of the fairies doting on his every utterance. She tells Bottom:
I am a spirit of no common rate;
The summer still doth tend upon my state;
And I do love thee: therefore, go with me;
I’ll give thee fairies to attend on thee,
And they shall fetch thee jewels from the deep,
And sing while thou on pressed flowers dost sleep;
And I will purge thy mortal grossness so
That thou shalt like an airy spirit go.
Bottom’s comical sort of union with the fairy queen is more than mere farce. Shakespeare describes the scene with beautiful language that suggests something almost magical in the meeting of the low, earthly nature and the high, spiritual nature. It recalls an historical account of when the low earthly nature and high spiritual nature met in a town called Bethlehem, and that, too, was attended by rough beasts and uneducated men.
As with most comedies, the dreams and revels of the night give way to dawn and the daylight of reason. The four young people resolve their troubles and return to the ordered society of the city, the fairy king frees his queen from the love spell, and Puck restores Bottom to his natural state.
But before everything returns quite to normal, as Shakespeare shifts us from the wild wood to the structured city, in the misty morning twilight hours where distinctions remain a bit hazy, Bottom awakes. He is back to his old self, and yet he is not quite his old self. He says:
[Awakening] When my cue comes, call me, and I will
answer: my next is, ‘Most fair Pyramus.’ Heigh-ho!
Peter Quince! Flute, the bellows-mender! Snout,
the tinker! Starveling! God’s my life, stolen
hence, and left me asleep! I have had a most rare
vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to
say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go
about to expound this dream. Methought I was–there
is no man can tell what. Methought I was,–and
methought I had,–but man is but a patched fool, if
he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye
of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not
seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue
to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream
was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of
this dream: it shall be called Bottom’s Dream,
because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the
latter end of a play, before the duke:
peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall
sing it at her death.
In the beginning of the play, we hear Bottom brag about his abilities. But now, after he has been treated like royalty by the queen of the fairies herself, Bottom curiously refrains from boasting. Or if he boasts, he boasts about the “most rare vision” and not about himself. Bottom concludes that it is past the wit of man [including himself] “to say what dream it was,” and that man [including himself] “is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream.”
Bottom treats his “vision” as something which has come from completely outside himself. He suggests that the dream is too real—so deep that it has “no bottom”—for his physical senses to make sense of. He expresses a reverence for the vision: he desires to commemorate it in a ballad and feels it appropriate for the solemn event of Thisbe’s death (which we may laugh at, but Bottom takes very seriously).
Bottom feels the urge to explain his experience, yet cannot find the right words. His speech captures the dilemma between experience and expression which is the dilemma of the human condition. As C.S. Lewis put it: “as thinkers we are cut off from what we think about; as tasting, touching, willing, loving, hating, we do not clearly understand. The more lucidly we think, the more we are cut off: the more deeply we enter into reality, the less we can think.” Bottom demonstrates the humor in this, and we chuckle when he interrupts himself and confuses the sense organs, but this humor is tinged with tragedy. A sense of loss attends every attempt to speak about experience. How often do you begin to tell your friends some story and end by throwing up your hands and saying “you just had to be there?”
Bottom realizes he cannot fully relate his experiences; he also cannot help but try. And so it is with us: we know we’ll never be able to explain everything. We know we’ll never be able to speak the whole truth about, say, God. But we try to say something true about the truth anyways. After struggling to say what he means, Bottom says that perhaps Peter Quince can capture the vision in a ballad. I love that! Bottom concludes that art can help connect us to the mysteries of experience. We turn our wonder and our confusion into songs and stories and poetry and paintings. We carve huge chunks of marble out of the mountains to try to communicate some human emotion. We compose symphonies to try to capture a sense of the seasons passing. We build big churches to try to say something about the infinite nature of God. Perhaps this makes us, as Bottom says, patched fools. But true wisdom begins with humility and accepting the position of the fool.
Shakespeare gives other characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream sharp wits and keen eyes. But he gives the most profound vision to one of the dullest characters (Bottom is the only human character who sees the spirit world of the fairies), and he speaks the most profound truths through one of the simplest voices. This suggests that the conclusions Bottom reaches are not reserved for intellectuals in ivory towers. They are fundamental truths of human experience. And it also reminds us that truth can come to us in the humblest of guises, for “power is made perfect in weakness.”
This Saturday, I went to a conference on “the promise of Chalcedonian Christology” at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. The conference focused on the history, causes, and effects of the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon held by the Church in 451 AD.
The talk titles intimidated me a bit going in:
“The Soteriological Grammar of Conciliar Christology”
“The Promise of Chalcedonian Christology for the Poor”
“Aquinas’s Chalcedonian Christology and its Reception”
“Unpacking the Chalcedonian Formula: from Studied Ambiguity to Saving Mystery”
“‘The Sum Total of our Faith: To Know Christ in the Father, Christ in the Flesh, and Christ in the Participation of the Altar’ (Baldwin of Ford): Insights from High Medieval Christology”
“The Grammar of the Two Natures”
But if I thought the discussions might be dry—given titles with words like “formula” and “grammar”—I was wrong. The history of the council is exciting! Around the time of Chalcedon, some church leaders had gone astray in their teachings on the nature of Christ. This was a big deal. There was no sense of “well, you have your truth and I have mine, so long as we all are nice to our neighbors that’s the main thing.” It mattered very much to the Church that the bishops taught true words about Christ—the true Word himself—to their flocks. It mattered so much that they physically fought over it. During the Second Council of Ephesus—which came just before and was a major impetus for Chalcedon—the presider, named Dioscorus, tried to depose Archbishop Flavian of Constantinople and another church leader for supposedly teaching the incarnation incorrectly. When Flavian opposed him, Dioscorus stirred up a mob that fatally wounded the archbishop. A representative from Rome, who later became Pope St. Hilary, just escaped the council with his life and reported the disaster to Pope Leo, who then condemned the council.
The fight threatened the unity of the Church and even the empire. Pope Leo wanted to call another council to set the record straight, but Emperor Theodosius II refused, partly because he sided with Dioscorus. But then Emperor Theodosius died, and an orthodox Christian named Marcius became emperor. With Leo’s permission, Marcius convened the council at Chalcedon.
Politics were certainly at play, but Chalcedon was really about the Church’s teachings on the nature—or natures—of Christ. The bishops faced the question that Christ put to his disciples: “But who do you say that I am?” Was Jesus truly son of God and son of man? Did he have one sort of hybrid nature, meaning that he did not truly share in our human nature? Or did he have a fully human nature and a fully divine nature? Could both natures be contained in one person? Could Mary properly be called Theotokos—mother of God—or was she only mother of the human side of a sort of divided Christ?
After lots of arguing and fighting and praying, the council ended up essentially affirming the Nicene Creed (you can read the Nicene Creed here, and the Chalcedonian definition here). They did not need or intend to invent new doctrines about Christ—they sought instead to confirm and clarify the orthodox faith in response to the new heresies and confusions. They confirmed that Christ is:
. . . to be acknowledged in two natures [human and divine] . . . the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten God, the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.
The conference talks brought up many interesting points, they traced the reception and influence of Chalcedon through the centuries, and they stirred up debate between the presenters and attendees. Some of these discussions went over my head, but they all combined to create an overwhelming impression of the drama and even excitement that lies in the Church’s orthodoxy. It reminded me of some passages in G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and so I revisited that book after the conference. Chesterton perfectly captures the impression I had, so I’ll let him take it from here:
. . . it is exactly this which explains what is so inexplicable to all the modern critics of the history of Christianity. I mean the monstrous wars about small points of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word. It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing. The Church could not afford to swerve a hair’s breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium. Once let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful. It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world. Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer. The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfilment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious. The smallest link was let drop by the artificers of the Mediterranean, and the lion of ancestral pessimism burst his chain in the forgotten forests of the north. Of these theological equalisations I have to speak afterwards. Here it is enough to notice that if some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness. A sentence phrased wrong about the nature of symbolism would have broken all the best statues in Europe. A slip in the definitions might stop all the dances; might wither all the Christmas trees or break all the Easter eggs. Doctrines had to be defined within strict limits, even in order that man might enjoy general human liberties. The Church had to be careful, if only that the world might be careless.
This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom — that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.
–from the “Paradoxes of Christianity,” Chapter VI of G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy