During one of our discussion groups over the Screwtape Letters, I was arrested by a passage where Uncle Screwtape appears to be quite the Christian personalist:
To us a human is primarily food; our aim is the absorption of its will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense.1
Obviously, he’s got the whole thing twisted around backwards and inside out, but his understanding that good and evil are grounded in the relationship between the self and another reveals a personalistic understanding of love.
Frequently people say that love is willing someone else’s genuine good. While I think this is certainly an essential part of it, I believe that this definition does not get the essence of love quite right. Instead, I have learned from Christian personalist thinkers like Karol Wojtyła (see his magisterial Love and Responsibility) that love involves the free gift of one’s very self to another. If you’re interested, I’ve compiled a number of scriptures that I believe support this deeper definition of love here. This comes out as Screwtape loathingly describes God’s attitude in contrast to his own:
One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself— creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His.
The opposite of this is not hate or malice, but rather Augustine’s libido dominandi, the lust for gaining power over another, which Lewis insightfully describes here as a kind of eating or absorption. This attitude does not primarily seek another’s harm so much as his subordination to one’s own self. This contrast, I believe, is at the very root of the difference between good and evil, the divine orientation versus the demonic, which Lewis summarizes with his special way for stating profound truths in perfectly apt and direct English:
We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself; the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct.
C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (MacMillan, 1961) §8. ↩
I have been listening to a bunch of Jordan Peterson’s podcasts recently and asking myself, “How is it possible that I can encounter in this man such profound insights that harmonize with everything I know about reality while at the same time I encounter profound disagreements that reflect a chasm between my worldview and his?” For one thing, he is not an ideologue. His intellectual honesty leads him to reflect deeply upon the actual data of human experience and this cannot but lead to genuine insight. At another level, however, I think that both the contact and the gap between his understanding of the world and my own comes from a difference in the way we understand the idea of λόγος.
From what I gather (I welcome anyone who knows Peterson’s work better than I to correct me), Peterson thinks of the λόγος as an idealization of human consciousness. In one lecture he likens the relationship between the λόγος and being to that between a spotlight and what it shines on. The catch is that he seems to think the spotlight somehow brings into reality (at least a certain kind of reality) the coutures of what it reveals. I take the idea to be something like that of the German idealists: structures like temporality and causality arise as the necessary conditions of conscious experience. The organization of the world we inhabit does not emerge independent of the organizing activity of our own consciousness.
By contrast, I understand the λόγος not at intelligence but as intelligibility. By this I mean that the λόγος represents the structure of order and pattern in the world which both exists independent of human consciousness and makes intelligent human consciousness of the world possible in the first place. Human consciousness is not the λόγος but it is λογικός, that is, receptive to the λόγος.
I see this difference as related to the difference between realist phenomenology (e.g. the work of Dietrich von Hildebrand or Karol Wojtyła) and the various forms of phenomenology that are ultimately idealist or constructivist. Both take the structures of lived experience seriously, and this is why I think that I find so much congenial in Peterson’s work. By starting with the datum that things do have meaning for us we stand on one side against flat-footed empiricism or cynical nihilism. Since we are both taking seriously the structures that we encounter in experience and since his experience cannot be all that different from my own, it is not surprising that we believe many of the same things about life and that he gains insights that blow me away as deeply correct. The difference comes because I believe that the structures revealed in human consciousness are capable of disclosing to us something about the structures of the world independent of human consciousness. Furthermore, this relationship is not accidental because I believe that the transcendent Λόγος himself both creates the world with its structures of intelligibility and created us so that we would be (at least partially) receptive to these structures.
I just finished reading all the Narnia books to my kids and ran across this little bit from the professor Digory Kirk—my lifelong role model—towards the end of The Last Battle:
Listen, Peter. When Aslan said you could never go back to Narnia, he meant the Narnia you were thinking of. But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia which has always been here and always will be here: just as our world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world. You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy. All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door. And of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream…It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!
Of course, if you have ever taken my ancient and medieval philosophy class you will know that I try to resist the urge of thinking of the material world in Plato as a copy of some higher material world populated by the Forms. That is to say, the Form of White (if there are Forms of sensible qualities for Plato) is not a perfectly white object up in Platonic heaven. Rather, it is no color at all since it is not an object that can be seen.
That being said, I think Lewis rightly latches onto several key features of Platonism in the Narnia books that historically have had and ought to have had a grip on Christian thinkers and we see coming out in a particularly lovely way in this section of The Last Battle: (i) there are gradations of being, i.e. such a thing as being more or less real, (ii) our familiar world is not the most real, (iii) but that does not make it altogether something to be despised either, since what we find good and beautiful in this world is a reflection or echo of something deeper and more real, (iv) even though this world is good, we should not mourn its final loss because all that is good and beautiful in it is preserved at a higher level. If you ever catch me saying that I am a Platonist (I do on occasion) it is usually these features which I, like Lewis, mean.
The person both as a concept and as a living reality is purely the product of patristic thought.1
The first half of this claim is the main concern of my current book project, but the second half is more interesting, although it requires a little explaining. I take Zizioulas to mean that, although we are individual humans automatically, being a fully fledged person is something we must grow into as we come into deeper and deeper communion with God, so the “living reality” of being a person must come from Christianity. But can we really say that this living reality is “purely the product of patristic thought”? As much as I like the Fathers, this doesn’t seem quite right. Perhaps better to say, “purely the product of the Faith expressed in patristic thought”?
John Zizioulas, Being as Communion (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), 27. ↩
If you look at the organs of opinion in Britain and Europe, and at the institutions such as universities, in which the self- consciousness of European societies is expressed and developed, you find almost everywhere a culture of repudiation. Take any aspect of the Western inheritance of which our ancestors were proud, and you will find university courses devoted to deconstructing it. Take any positive feature of our political and cultural inheritance, and you will find concerted efforts in both media and the academy to place it in quotation marks, and make it look like an imposture or a deceit. And there is an important segment of political opinion on the left that seeks to endorse these critiques and to convert them into policies.1
Surely our ancestors did many vile things, but just as surely they did many noble things. The psychology that persistently obsesses over the former and refuses to look at the latter must be some kind of self-hating neurosis. But it’s the way to get an A in “social studies.”
Roger Scruton, How to Be a Conservative (Bloomsbury, 2014), 40. ↩
For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.
—Translation from Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. 1, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe.
I ran across this beautiful description of the early Christians in the Letter to Diognetus while reading the first volume of the Ante-Nicene Fathers. If only we could be true to this description, how much better salted would the world be by our presence?
Among the lessons taught by the French Revolution there is none sadder or more striking than this, that you may make everything else out of the passions of men except a political system that will work, and that there is nothing so pitilessly and unconsciously cruel as sincerity formulated into dogma.
—James Russell Lowell
This quote comes from this week’s reading in our Russell Kirk reading group and expresses well what Kirk means by “ideology”: a political philosophy that relentlessly applies an all-too-simple but fervently held idea or slogan to the uncomfortably complex exigencies of human life.
Man being complex, his government cannot be simple. The humanitarian theorists who contrive projects of ingenious simplicity must arrive, before long, at the crowning simplicity of despotism. They begin with a licentious individualism, every man deprived of ancient sanctions and thrown upon his own moral resources; and when this state of things turns out to be intolerable, as it must, then they are driven to a ponderous and intolerant collectivism; central direction endeavors to compensate for the follies of reckless moral and economic atomism. Revolutionary idealists of this stamp are faithful to simplicity, though to nothing else in heaven or earth. They cannot abide any medium between absolute freedom and absolute consolidation.1
As I mentioned at our Thursday night reading group, I have been impressed by Kirk’s ability to make deep connections between ideas that I have never considered before. The very simplicity of a radical ideology necessarily leads to a consolidation of power when the fanatics of that ideal run up against the intractable complexity of concrete human existence.
Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind (Gateway Editions, 1985), 102. ↩
This weekend I am preaching at all three CF churches on the first half of Romans 8. We can learn quite a bit about the Holy Spirit by studying this dense portion of Scripture since Paul draws an extended contrast between life in the Spirit and life in the flesh. You can find the presentation I will use here.
(2017 Mars Hill Graduation Address)
I want to focus on one word today: gratitude. Gratitude for what we have as a community in Mars Hill. I’m tempted to go on and on about the outstanding academic achievements of this school—our ACT scores, the performance of our graduates in college, and what they go on to do—but I won’t. I’ll just share one example. Years ago I had a student at Mars Hill who was—how shall we say it—near the back of the pack. I had this student, however, as an Asbury student later and realized that she was head and shoulders above the other students in her college class. I took a second look at the essay that she had written for my class and realized that it wasn’t really any better than what she had written for me at Mars Hill. Compared to her peers at Mars Hill she appeared to give poor work, while compared to her peers at college coming out of a progressivist school environment she appeared to be someone who could actually write grammatically complete English sentences. And not just that: she actually knew what an argument was and how to form one. I won’t go on and on about how we should be grateful for the academic advantages of Mars Hill because this really is not Mars Hill’s greatest strength. I was talking to Martin Cothran on Thursday night about the massive flowering of classical schools across the country. More and more these schools are forming their own accreditation agencies, their own college tests, and more and more colleges and employers are courting their graduates because the results are clear and decisive. Next to these schools, Mars Hill is merely one among many who do it better than we.
Instead I want to encourage a profound sense of gratitude on the part of everyone here today for the thing that I believe Mars Hill does best: community, a common life lived together in genuine love. I do not think that we are unique in this, but we are atypical. When I look into the dank cramped cave of the human heart I find ugly little blind fish that eat away at community. The Christian tradition calls these little blind fish “the passions”: greed, sensuality, pride, selfishness, rebellion, lust, self-absortion, conceit, idolatry. These things and others like them are called the “passions” from the Latin word passio because they are diseases of the soul from which we suffer. The Greek equivalent gives us our word “pathology.” What Christianity has always tried to overcome, many forces in our world today would now try to exploit in order to gain your dollars or your votes. What our education tries to slowly eradicate in the soul, progressivist education tries to cultivate. In such a world, it is no wonder that real community is hard to find. We should be grateful, then, for what we have because it is rare.
In place of broken homes we have strong marriages that nurture children. In place of parents seeking their own toys, we have parents laying down their lives for the upbringing of their children. In place of a principal that took this job as a way to advance his own career, we have a headmaster that we don’t pay who loves each of these graduates individually and sacrifices extraordinary amounts of his time to dig into the real spiritual battles of their lives. In place of cliques and bullies we have a single, unified senior class that loves one another and holds one another accountable. In place of the back-biting politics of PTA and sports-team boosters, we have families that come together around a common vision. In place of teenagers, we have men and women. In place of rebellion, we have submission. In place of kids who are absorbed in looking cool, we have Kyle and Mason.
But all this is not possible. It is not as though the parents and teachers and students that I see here never had a dank cramped cave in their hearts where they fed tidbits of community to their own little blind fish. The dynamics of love, sacrifice, and commitment that I see here should not be possible for beings such as these. What I see here is literally miraculous, a rupture of the order of things only possible because Omnipotent Love has torn it open. Two thousand years ago our king allowed nails to be driven into his hands and his feet and he allowed a spear to be driven into his side. From that torn open side still flows a river of blood and water that tears open our cramped cave and kills the fish that swim there. Only the death of God and his victory over death through the power of an indestructible life make this impossible Mars Hill possible. And the appropriate response in our hearts to this is gratitude.