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March 2008

Sunday Night Journal — March 30, 2008

The Sword

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.

—Matthew 10:34

There’s a certain sort of somewhat educated, yet substantially ignorant, person whose condescension toward Christianity and Christians tries my patience more than open hostility. I’m thinking of the person, often describing himself as spiritual but not religious, who believes that all “belief systems” or “faith traditions” are fundamentally the same: the same in their ultimate meaning, and the same in their origin, which is the human mind: it’s ok with him if you believe in Jesus, and it would be ok with him if you believed with equal conviction in fairies, or voodoo, or Odin, or Krishna. They’re all psychological responses to the puzzle of human existence, and one is no more true and no more false than another.

Of all the ways to be wrong about Christianity, this may be the worst, because it prevents the person from even seeing, much less confronting, the real challenge presented by the faith, the very existence of which divides the human race into two groups, those who believe and those who do not believe. Of course the same could be said of any belief: there are those who believe in fairies, and those who don’t. But the argument between those two is an argument about whether or not the world contains fairies. The argument between the Christian and the non-Christian is about the nature of the world itself, the nature of reality itself. Because one party to the discussion does not realize this, it’s very difficult to bridge the gap with words.

When the Christian in such a dialogue insists that God is not one of a pantheon, not even the most powerful one, and that God is not simply one representative of the category “god,” he seems unreasonable. All the other asks is that the Christian extend the same courtesy to other gods that he, the tolerant unbeliever, does to the Christian’s God. The refusal to do so can only appear to one who doesn’t grasp the Christian view as intolerance and pride. And it is intolerant, as a married man or woman is (or ought to be) intolerant toward the idea that the wedding vows are not meant to be kept. It isn’t supposed to be prideful, although it may be.

The Church, like Israel of old, must always stand apart from the great syncretist love-feast. The uniqueness of its teaching is of its essence, not a mistake on the part of isolated primitives, to be corrected by contact with others. Christianity is the myth that is also true, the rich array of symbols which are also facts, the belief system which is also a correct description of reality. Christian faith is not an accessory to one’s life, chosen from a boutique full of similar items because it is pretty or comforting, but the injection into it of a new principle of life. Between the acceptance of this principle and its rejection there is finally no permanent middle ground, just as there can be no permanent compromise or accommodation between life and death in one body, only a struggle in which one or the other will prove victorious.

Belief is divided from unbelief, life from death, as by a sword, like the sword that splits history in two:

…A moment not out of time, but in time, in what we call history:
transecting, bisecting the world of time…

—Eliot, Choruses from “The Rock”

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I Am a Gentleman in a Dustcoat

A few days ago I made a melancholy, if not morbid, remark about time and loss to a young woman. I realized immediately, but of course too late, that it was rather a heavy thing to lay on a young person, and was reminded of this poem by John Crowe Ransom. It was an odd sensation to find myself in the position of the gentleman in the poem. It’s probably still under copyright, but since Ransom has been dead for thirty-five years I think I’ll share it with you (compounding my deficiency of tact, since the young woman is a reader of this blog, but trusting that the quality of the poem compensates):

Piazza Piece

—I am a gentleman in a dustcoat trying
To make you hear. Your ears are soft and small
And listen to an old man not at all,
They want the young men’s whispering and sighing.
But see the roses on your trellis dying
And hear the spectral singing of the moon;
For I must have my lovely lady soon,
I am a gentleman in a dustcoat trying.

—I am a lady young in beauty waiting
Until my truelove comes, and then we kiss.
But what grey man among the vines is this
Whose words are dry and faint as in a dream?
Back from my trellis, Sir, before I scream!
I am a lady young in beauty waiting.

—John Crowe Ransom

I’ve never encountered the word “dustcoat” outside of this poem, so I’m not sure exactly what one is, but it certainly sounds appropriate.

I can’t help imagining the man as looking somewhat like those oddly bundled-up Victorian men in Edward Gorey’s drawings.

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More About the Future

A few follow-ups to the paleo-future post below:

The sad and creepy world of Ray Kurzweil, a technological genius who in all likelihood is going to die a very unhappy man.

A couple of obituaries, here and here, for Arthur C. Clarke.

Clarke was probably the last of the great sci-fi writers who was formed by a not-quite-post-Christian civilization which took certain bourgeois values for granted: the importance of reason, its power to tame the raw stuff of human nature, the virtues of restraint and tolerance. His writings are entertaining but very, very thin. He was contradicted by that older, wiser, and vastly more gifted writer who saw the rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem.

Partly in memoriam, and partly just by way of a general reflection on the decline of the future, here is a journal entry from 2004, “I Miss the Future.”

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Where Is My 250-mph Air-Cushion Car?!?

It was supposed to be here by now.

Where are the domed climate-controlled cities? The self-maintaining houses? The undersea resorts? The satellite hotels? The intelligence pill?

And most of all, where is my four-hour work day?

I love stuff like this—images of the future as it was imagined in the past. There’s even a name for it: paleo-future. And a few of these predictions are not so far off.

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New Email Address

Due to various problems with my lightondarkwater.com email address, I'm switching to gmail. New address is maclin.horton (at) gmail.com. Or click on the "view profile" button and then on the "email me" button.

By the way, spammers are a very low form of vermin. Our network administrator tells me that we receive on average 1,200,000 email messages, of which 96.5% are rejected as spam. And this is a small-to-medium-sized organization.

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Sunday Night Journal — March 23, 2008

Believe It Or Not

I think sometimes of a conversation in the mid-1970s that helped push me toward a decision when I was hearing the call to Christian faith, but was still undecided as to what it meant and what I would do about it. My friend was an intelligent and educated Christian (and probably still is, though I haven’t seen her for many years), and I was struggling with the question of whether it was really possible to believe in such a stupendous miracle as the Resurrection. I had for some time been attracted to Christianity as a sort of philosophy of life and as the shaper of our cultural world, but suffered from the naturalist and materialist prejudices of modern culture. It might be nice to believe such things, I thought, but it seemed impossible.

What I recall of the conversation is actually only one exchange. I looked her in the eye and said “Do you really believe he rose from the dead?” And I remember vividly the look on her face. She didn’t back down at all, she didn’t look down or away and fumble for words, she didn’t speak evasively. But she looked almost trapped, like a witness who would rather not answer a lawyer’s question but is under oath and unwilling to commit perjury. And her answer was simple: “Yes.”

She seemed to be “confessing” Christ in the way we use the word today, revealing something which would get her into trouble or embarrass her. This exchange was not a decisive moment, but it was influential: so, I thought, yes, people who are clearly not crazy or stupid or lying do truly believe that this thing really happened; it was not a myth or a symbol or a metaphor; it happened, in this world, just as a sunset is happening as I write these words.

The main argument against the Resurrection is a dogmatic assertion: such things simply cannot happen, therefore it did not happen, and that’s all there is to it. But the historical arguments, considered fairly, are inconclusive.

These arguments usually insist on disqualifying most of the very specific and detailed historical evidence which we call the New Testament. It’s said that this testimony doesn’t count, because it was written by Christians—in other words, it must be doubted because the people who wrote it down believed it. To state the objection that way is to answer it. Naturally only the people who believed it wrote it down; naturally their lives were changed; naturally their record became the scripture of the new religion. What greater historical evidence in favor of the belief could conceivably be produced than the testimony of eye-witnesses?

Or it’s said that the Resurrection is a myth, a story that grew in the telling over time, until respect and love for a man and his teachings produced a fanciful story of his supernatural deeds. The problem with this is that so little time actually passed between the events and the writing of them. It’s a commonly held view that the first epistles of Paul were written roughly twenty to thirty years after the Crucifixion, the synoptic Gospels within the next decade or two. I graduated from high school over forty years ago, but I don’t have any trouble recalling significant events from the time. I may not be correct about all the details, but I believe I remember the essentials well enough.

I remember, for instance, that I was elected president of the Science Club in my senior year. It would be pretty easy to prove that. If I were to claim I was elected because an angel had appeared at a meeting and told the members that God had chosen me, it would be easy to find people to say that no such thing ever happened. If, on the other hand, the people who were there supported my story, it would be harder to deny. (If I remember correctly, I was elected because the outgoing president wanted me to be, and no one objected very strongly.)

And then there’s the historical-critical approach, or its abuse, which involves accepting parts of the New Testament and rejecting others for reasons which often seem arbitrary and sometimes tautological exercises in prejudice, as in the case of the notorious Jesus Seminar.

Considered with an open mind, belief in the Resurrection is plausible because it is supported by some persuasive evidence. It remains, though, dependent on the acceptance of someone else’s testimony, and since the event is so strange and so contrary to the way the world normally works, one can also find plausible reasons to deny it.

There is no easy way out; one simply has to choose. That act of choosing is mysterious, but it often includes the desire to believe, or not to believe. One person wishes to believe, and does; another would like to believe, but is afraid to—afraid of disappointment, afraid of being a fool. One person wishes not to believe, and does not; another wishes not to believe, but cannot utterly rid himself of faith. The relationship of desire, will, and grace is obscure even, or especially, to the one in whom they are operating.

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Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday is an odd time, intermediate and suspended. There's nothing happening liturgically (at least in this diocese) between the afternoon of Good Friday and the Easter Vigil late Saturday. I’m never quite sure what to do with myself. Should I go about my business as if it were any other Saturday? Presumably one should try to maintain at least some degree of continuity with the day before and the day after, but how? At any rate there is always some amount of preparation for Easter eating and visiting involved, especially for most women, without whom holidays at home would be pretty bare things. I think for at least three years in a row I intended to listen to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion on Holy Saturday. But of course there was never time, so I gave that up.

Meanwhile, on the original Holy Saturday, Jesus’s body lay in the tomb while he did whatever incomprehensible thing it was that the Nicene Creed expresses as “He descended into hell.” So maybe it’s okay for us to just step aside, and remember that the work of salvation is in its essence not ours, apart from our consent.

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