Narnian Platonism

Me and the kids reading Narnia
Me and the kids reading Narnia

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.

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A Strong Claim from Zizioulas

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”?

  1. John Zizioulas, Being as Communion (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), 27.

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Culture of Repudiation

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.”

  1. Roger Scruton, How to Be a Conservative (Bloomsbury, 2014), 40.

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Description of Early Christians to Diognetus

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?

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Sincerity Formulated into Dogma

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.

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Simplicity Leads to Despotism

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.

  1. Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind (Gateway Editions, 1985), 102.

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Spirit vs. Flesh in Romans 8

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.

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(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.

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Whittaker Chambers on Writing and Inertia

By simply picking up a pen, things can be done, if we have the will to overcome inertia.

From a letter by Whittaker Chambers to Henry Regnery regarding Russell Kirk’s Conservative Mind.

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Burke on Moral Order

The awful Author of our being is the author of our place in the order of existence; and that having disposed and marshalled us by a divine tactic, not according to our will, but according to His, He has, in and by that disposition, virtually subjected us to act the part which belongs to the part assigned to us. We have obligations to mankind at large, which are not in consequence of any special voluntary pact. They arise from the relation of man to man, and the relation of man to God, which relations are not a matter of choice….When we marry, the choice is voluntary, but the duties are not a matter of choice….The instincts which give rise to this mysterious process of nature are not of our making. But out of physical causes, unknown to us, perhaps unknowable, arise moral duties, which, as we are able perfectly to comprehend, we are bound indispensably to perform.

—Edmund Burke, “Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs,” Works, III, p. 79, quoted in Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind, p. 31.

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