Saturday, March 31, 2007

Independent "free" thought can never be progressive

From my previous post about Christians and Pagans, I want to extract something very important from that discussion by G.K. Chesterton that is related to that topic and many other modern topics. In the same chapter of his brilliant work, Heretics, G.K. Chesterton exposes this notion of progress and how it is sometimes linked by modern writers to this notion of independent or free thought. This idea that one must deconstruct or disown everything handed to him in order to progress is utter nonsense.
I do not know by what extraordinary mental accident modern writers so constantly connect the idea of progress with the idea of independent thinking. Progress is obviously the antithesis of independent thinking. For under independent or individualistic thinking, every man starts at the beginning, and goes, in all probability, just as far as his father before him. But if there really be anything of the nature of progress, it must mean, above all things, the careful study and assumption of the whole of the past.
Man must build upon what he is given. According to Chesterton, only two systems in the world can be credited with being truly progressive: Physical Science, and the Catholic Church.

Chesterton (via the character of MacIan) explains this in Ch. 8 of his work, The Ball and the Cross:
But there is one thing Free-thought can never be by any possibility -- Free-thought can never be progressive. It can never be progressive because it will accept nothing from the past; it begins every time again from the beginning; and it goes every time in a different direction. All the rational philosophers have gone along different roads, so it is impossible to say which has gone farthest. Who can discuss whether Emerson was a better optimist than Schopenhauer was pessimist? It is like asking if this corn is as yellow as that hill is steep. No; there are only two things that really progress; and they both accept accumulations of authority. They may be progressing uphill and down; they may be growing steadily better or steadily worse; but they have steadily increased in certain definable matters; they have steadily advanced in a certain definable direction; they are the only two things, it seems, that ever can progress. The first is strictly physical science. The second is the Catholic Church.
He goes on to explain why this notion is essential to Christianity, in that it prevents it from getting swept up in the particular fads of the day -- something which does often threaten the Church, and would mean its downfall, were we to simply disown our notion of dogma:
... I say that if you want an example of anything which has progressed in the moral world by the same method as science in the material world, by continually adding to without unsettling what was there before, then I say that there is only one example of it. And that is Us... Christianity is always out of fashion because it is always sane; and all fashions are mild insanities. When Italy is mad on art the Church seems too Puritanical; when England is mad on Puritanism the Church seems too artistic. When you quarrel with us now you class us with kingship and despotism; but when you quarrelled with us first it was because we would not accept the divine despotism of Henry VIII. The Church always seems to be behind the times, when it is really beyond the times; it is waiting till the last fad shall have seen its last summer. It keeps the key of a permanent virtue.
Science and Christianity rely on definitive axioms and teachings that have been handed down, building upon what came before them. For Christianity to progress anywhere, it must have dogma -- and this is why infallibility is so important -- that is, the promise we have from Christ to guard and guide the Church from proclaiming error. Researching and understanding the development of religious dogma is one thing, but if we simply toss it aside as out-moded under the impression that, to be an independent thinker, we must start from the beginning and construct it for ourselves -- this is not progressive, and it is very much not Catholic.
Christians and Pagans

Early in high school, I was confounded by those of my generation who believed themselves to be pagans. I remained a skeptic as I had determined that their affections for paganism were, more or less, masked disaffections for Christianity. They claimed to praise the ancient deities of old, and I found it to be quite silly at the time. As my relationship with Christ developed further, I began to question whether anybody who actually fancied himself a pagan in the line of the great pagans of antiquity should actually be considered truly pagan.

The modern pagan has certainly set up for himself a framework in direct opposition to Christianity, something the ancient pagans never did because, well, Christianity came later. And so there rests the question. These modern pagans most certainly share no true connection with pre-Christian paganism. To honestly do so would lead them, perhaps kicking and screaming, to Christianity. See, the thing about ancient paganism was precisely that it was pre-Christian, and, as G.K. Chesterton pointed out, the world can never be pre-Christian again! Anything that was good or true about ancient paganism is now wrapped up in Christianity! And the rest is, well, lost to the ancient ruins of the gods.

I recall this discussion by G.K. Chesterton from Ch. XII of his work, Heretics.
XII. Paganism and Mr. Lowes Dickinson

The primary fact about Christianity and Paganism is that one came after the other. Mr. Lowes Dickinson speaks of them as if they were parallel ideals--even speaks as if Paganism were the newer of the two, and the more fitted for a new age. He suggests that the Pagan ideal will be the ultimate good of man; but if that is so, we must at least ask with more curiosity than he allows for, why it was that man actually found his ultimate good on earth under the stars, and threw it away again.

There is only one thing in the modern world that has been face to face with Paganism; there is only one thing in the modern world which in that sense knows anything about Paganism: and that is Christianity... All that genuinely remains of the ancient hymns or the ancient dances of Europe, all that has honestly come to us from the festivals of Phoebus or Pan, is to be found in the festivals of the Christian Church. If any one wants to hold the end of a chain which really goes back to the heathen mysteries, he had better take hold of a festoon of flowers at Easter or a string of sausages at Christmas. Everything else in the modern world is of Christian origin, even everything that seems most anti-Christian. The French Revolution is of Christian origin. The newspaper is of Christian origin. The anarchists are of Christian origin. Physical science is of Christian origin. The attack on Christianity is of Christian origin. There is one thing, and one thing only, in existence at the present day which can in any sense accurately be said to be of pagan origin, and that is Christianity.

The real difference between Paganism and Christianity is perfectly summed up in the difference between the pagan, or natural, virtues, and those three virtues of Christianity which the Church of Rome calls virtues of grace. The pagan, or rational, virtues are such things as justice and temperance, and Christianity has adopted them. The three mystical virtues which Christianity has not adopted, but invented, are faith, hope, and charity. Now much easy and foolish Christian rhetoric could easily be poured out upon those three words, but I desire to confine myself to the two facts which are evident about them. The first evident fact (in marked contrast to the delusion of the dancing pagan)--the first evident fact, I say, is that the pagan virtues, such as justice and temperance, are the sad virtues, and that the mystical virtues of faith, hope, and charity are the gay and exuberant virtues. And the second evident fact, which is even more evident, is the fact that the pagan virtues are the reasonable virtues, and that the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity are in their essence as unreasonable as they can be.

As the word “unreasonable” is open to misunderstanding, the matter may be more accurately put by saying that each one of these Christian or mystical virtues involves a paradox in its own nature, and that this is not true of any of the typically pagan or rationalist virtues. Justice consists in finding out a certain thing due to a certain man and giving it to him. Temperance consists in finding out the proper limit of a particular indulgence and adhering to that. But charity means pardoning what is unpardonable, or it is no virtue at all. Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all. And faith means believing the incredible, or it is no virtue at all....

The great psychological discovery of Paganism, which turned it into Christianity, can be expressed with some accuracy in one phrase. The pagan set out, with admirable sense, to enjoy himself. By the end of his civilization he had discovered that a man cannot enjoy himself and continue to enjoy anything else... Now, the psychological discovery is merely this, that whereas it had been supposed that the fullest possible enjoyment is to be found by extending our ego to infinity, the truth is that the fullest possible enjoyment is to be found by reducing our ego to zero...

My objection to Mr. Lowes Dickinson and the reassertors of the pagan ideal is, then, this. I accuse them of ignoring definite human discoveries in the moral world, discoveries as definite, though not as material, as the discovery of the circulation of the blood. We cannot go back to an ideal of reason and sanity. For mankind has discovered that reason does not lead to sanity. We cannot go back to an ideal of pride and enjoyment. For mankind has discovered that pride does not lead to enjoyment. I do not know by what extraordinary mental accident modern writers so constantly connect the idea of progress with the idea of independent thinking. Progress is obviously the antithesis of independent thinking. For under independent or individualistic thinking, every man starts at the beginning, and goes, in all probability, just as far as his father before him. But if there really be anything of the nature of progress, it must mean, above all things, the careful study and assumption of the whole of the past. I accuse Mr. Lowes Dickinson and his school of reaction in the only real sense. If he likes, let him ignore these great historic mysteries — the mystery of charity, the mystery of chivalry, the mystery of faith. If he likes, let him ignore the plough or the printing-press. But if we do revive and pursue the pagan ideal of a simple and rational self-completion we shall end--where Paganism ended. I do not mean that we shall end in destruction. I mean that we shall end in Christianity.
Modern, anti-Christian paganism is a new creation. It has little to do with what came before it. In rejecting Christianity modern pagans inadvertently condemn much of what was genuine about the paganism that preceded it. But if modern pagans desire a real and true link with classic paganism, they find themselves confronted with the modern reality of Christianity. Laudetur Iesus Christus!

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Wisdom from the Digital Cable Guide

Occasionally in my down time, I scroll through the channels on the little Digital Cable Guide to see what is on television. And occasionally, the descriptions of the shows and movies are pretty informative. Other times, not so much. Sometimes, I don't know. I often wonder who writes these things and how much they are paid for what they do.

Once, it listed the movie "Friday the 13th, Part VI". The description was something to the effect of:
Teen raises mass murderer from the dead. Slaughter ensues.
Uh, yeah. Straight, to the point.

The listing for "Deliverance" was even more interesting. The description said:
Four Atlanta businessmen encounter unexpected terrors while making their way down an Appalachian river.
Hehe unexpected terrors. If that isn't the understatement of the century. I guess it's true that just as Jaws made you not want to ever go into the water, Deliverance made you not want to ever vacation in Appalachia.
An Anniversary of Rebirth

It was 10 years ago tonight that I was baptized and received into the Roman Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil on March 29th, 1997. It's been an extraordinary journey, and it's only just beginning.
The eternal Father, by a free and hidden plan of His own wisdom and goodness, created the whole world. His plan was to raise men to a participation of the divine life. Fallen in Adam, God the Father did not leave men to themselves, but ceaselessly offered helps to salvation, in view of Christ, the Redeemer "who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature". All the elect, before time began, the Father "foreknew and pre-destined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that he should be the firstborn among many brethren". He planned to assemble in the holy Church all those who would believe in Christ. Already from the beginning of the world the foreshadowing of the Church took place. It was prepared in a remarkable way throughout the history of the people of Israel and by means of the Old Covenant. In the present era of time the Church was constituted and, by the outpouring of the Spirit, was made manifest. At the end of time it will gloriously achieve completion, when, as is read in the Fathers, all the just, from Adam and "from Abel, the just one, to the last of the elect," will be gathered together with the Father in the universal Church.

The Son, therefore, came, sent by the Father. It was in Him, before the foundation of the world, that the Father chose us and predestined us to become adopted sons, for in Him it pleased the Father to re-establish all things. To carry out the will of the Father, Christ inaugurated the Kingdom of heaven on earth and revealed to us the mystery of that kingdom. By His obedience He brought about redemption. The Church, or, in other words, the kingdom of Christ now present in mystery, grows visibly through the power of God in the world.
From Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, one of the fruits of the Second Vatican Council.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Your effect on every soul...
Constantly call to mind that at every moment you are cooperating in the human and spiritual formation of those around you, and of all souls — for the blessed Communion of Saints reaches as far as that. At every moment: when you work and when you rest; when people see you happy or when they see you worried; when at your job, or out in the street, you pray as does a child of God and the peace of your soul shows through; when people see that you have suffered, that you have wept, and you smile.
-St. Josemaría Escrivá, from The Forge, #846.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Things too wonderful for me...

Job 38:1-5, 42:1-6
Then the LORD addressed Job out of the storm and said: Who is this that obscures divine plans with words of ignorance? Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its size; do you know? Who stretched out the measuring line for it?

Then Job answered the LORD and said: I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be hindered. I have dealt with great things that I do not understand; things too wonderful for me, which I cannot know. I had heard of you by word of mouth, but now my eye has seen you. Therefore I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes.
Do not think that we can control the world. It is much bigger than we can imagine...


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