A Methodist Defends Calvinism?

CalvinAnyone who’s read my blogs over the last few months will know that I’m a fan of G.K. Chesterton. And in fact, despite being deceased for almost a century, he’s a regular Twitter user. He Tweeted recently, “I strongly object to wrong arguments on the right side. I think I object to them more than to the wrong arguments on the wrong side.” Chesterton is totally right. As Christians we should be committed to the truth to such an extent that we are willing to condemn bad argumentation from our own ranks.

But as Reformation Day approached, Chesterton tweeted the following, “I think Calvinism has been a greater curse than leprosy.” What followed was a thread of comments that called for strong objection. While I’m not a Calvinist (coming from a Wesleyan evangelical tradition and having adopted a Molinist account of divine providence) Chesterton’s comment seemed to be an unjustifiable overstatement. Generally, my experience of Calvinists has been a good one as well as having read enough Calvinists to know that theological discussion and the church in general has benefited greatly from Calvinist thought and spirituality. Now, add to Chesterton’s rather provocative statement about Calvinism the anonymity of social media, and the possibility of bad argumentation on the right side is heightened acutely and was demonstrated in the comments section. I’m going to concentrate on one particularly bad argument against the Calvinist view of things.

One Tweeter Twitted the following Tweet,

“Every Calvinist I’ve ever spoken with has told me they were one of the ones predestined to be saved. I haven’t met one that said, “nah, he didn’t pick me.” Weird!”

“Calvinism is fueled by arrogance. Limited atonement is aristocratic thinking.”

The argument seems to be that if you think you’re part of a special ‘elect’ group then you’ve automatically entered arrogant territory. But the problem with this is twofold.

Firstly the election of people to eternal life in Christianity is based on grace. By grace we mean unconditional love. Someone is part of the elect not on account of what they’ve done but on the basis of what Jesus has done. There is nothing in them that merits their status as elect.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9 (ESV)

So one major factor mitigating any claims of arrogance in Christianity as a whole, let alone Calvinism, is that our election is based entirely on the grace of God.

Secondly, all Christians believe in some form of election. Of course, understandings of election differ (some allowing for libertarian accounts of free will and some opting for compatibilist accounts [and this I think is the main point of contention]), but because the Bible is so clear that election takes place in some form or another the existence of an ‘elect’ is incontrovertible (See Mk.13.20, 27; Lk. 18:7; Rom. 9:16, 2 Pet. 1:10, etc.).  In which case, the argument advanced by the commentator above would apply not simply to Calvinists but to Christians in general, which is something I think he’d want to avoid. It easily morphs into an argument against Christian exclusivism along the lines of, “…if only Christians are saved, or only Christians have the truth, then that is theologically arrogant.” The same principle is at work.

Alvin Plantinga sums up common accusations against exclusivism, “It is irrational, or egotistical and unjustified, or intellectually arrogant, or elitist, or a manifestation of harmful pride, or even oppressive and imperialist.” (Plantinga, A Defense of Religious Exclusivism, http://www.andrewmbailey.com/ap/). The claim seems to be that exclusivism involves moral failure because it is exclusive. But Plantinga responds insightfully, “These charges of arrogance are a philosophical tar baby: Get close enough to use them against the exclusivist and you are likely to find them stuck fast to yourself.” (Ibid, 193). To claim that the exclusivist is wrong morally or intellectually would run the pluralist into the same kind of problems they accuse exclusivists of.

What we see then, is that it is important to condemn bad argumentation even if it is used in support of the right side. I think this is especially true of the Twitter comment above, since his argument wasn’t simply a poor argument against Calvinism but would also lead to some rather unorthodox conclusions about Christianity in general.

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Tips for Discussing Justification from John Owen

John Owen.jpg

John Owen is perhaps one of the greatest British theologians to have ever lived. At the same time he is also woefully overlooked. Most Christians have never heard of John Owen, let alone read any of his books. It’s time to give John Owen the attention he deserves so that we can learn at the feet of a theologian who does theology at its best.

The book that I’ve been reading most recently is his tome on ‘The Doctrine of Justification’ (it’s full title runs to about a paragraph so we’ll stick with the shortened version). I think Owen’s introduction is a brilliant example of excellent theology. It has been said before that the best kind of theology is done to equip the Church in its mission to the world, glorifying God in the process. What we see in Owen’s work is top notch, in-depth theology that doesn’t lose sight of the need to equip the Church on the ground; theology that speaks to people’s hearts and minds with a powerful vision of who God is and what he’s done in the gospel. For example, the very first sentence of the book indicates that Owen has this chiefly in mind. He writes,

“The first inquiry in this matter, in a way of duty, is after the proper relief of a conscience of a sinner pressed and perplexed by a sense of the guilt of sin.”

He goes on, “With respect unto this state and condition of men, or men in this state and condition, the inquiry is, What that is upon the account whereof God pardons all their sins, receives them into his favour, declares or pronounces them righteous and acquitted from all guilt, removes the curse, and turns away all his wrath from them, giving them right and title unto a blessed, immortality or life eternal?”

What is fascinating is Owen’s commitment to this vision of a practical gospel focused theology for the church at the expense of academic honour and reputation. In his treatment of this topic, “…it is the direction, satisfaction, and peace of the consciences of men, and not the curiosity of notions or subtlety of disputations, which it is our duty to design.” Owen is not a theologian for the sake of theology, but a theologian for the sake of the gospel and its proclamation. Owen knows that if the main thing is not kept the main thing and if the focus of theology moves from the good news of Jesus to some other area, then without a constant focus on Jesus, “…we shall quickly wander into curious and perplexed questions, wherein the consciences of guilty sinners are not concerned; and which, therefore, really belong not unto the substance or truth of this doctrine, nor are to be immixed therewith.”

Having prefaced his book with this vision of gospel theology for the church Owen can get straight to the point. If the good news is to truly be good news of Jesus for the relief of the consciences of guilty sinners, then any debate about justification will ask, “Whether it be anything in ourselves, as our faith and repentance, the renovation of our natures, inherent habits of grace, and actual works of righteousness which we have done or may do? Or whether it be the obedience, righteousness, satisfaction, and merit of the Son of God our mediator, and surety of the covenant, imputed unto us?” This is the main point of contention, are we justified by something that occurs in us, or something that occurs outside of us.

Having set this up as the main point of contention Owen has actually anticipated one of the key features of justification advocated by the New Perspective on Paul. His main concern isn’t primarily as to whether justification is a legal declaration of pardon (though it is that), but the cause of that declaration. Owen will contend that if justification is based on our own righteousness, “…whatever may be the influence of the grace of God unto it, or causality of it…” it simply won’t be Christ focused enough so proving insufficient to provide proper relief to sinful human beings.

So Owen, at least in these opening pages, gives us these key tips for discussing justification. We are to elucidate the doctrine in a way that will properly speak to the church in a way that truly communicates the good news and we can only do this if it is sufficiently centered on Christ Jesus. It is, after all, the good news of Jesus Christ.

Reflections on Jordon Peterson’s Biblical Series 1: Part II.

cropped-esv-bible.jpgIn my previous post I outlined Peterson’s approach to understanding the Bible psychologically and expressed my concern that he still hadn’t properly understood the kind of experiences that prompt religious reflection. His approach to the Bible seemed to assume naturalism (that nothing other than nature exists) while simultaneously maintaining that there is something more than naturalism posits. In fact, at one point in his first lecture he says that people have genuine spiritual experiences is an ‘incontrovertible fact’. There is a tension in Peterson’s thinking here that is left unresolved because he refuses to unpack what these spiritual experiences consist in and how to best explain them. This unresolved tension leads him to understand the biblical literature more in terms of moral and philosophical allegory than anything else, and yet, anyone who’s read the Bible in any depth will know that while allegory (or at least typology) might be a feature of certain types of biblical literature, we cannot flatten scripture as a whole in that way without doing injustice to it.

Peterson’s slightly muddled naturalistic method is highlighted more clearly in the second hour of his lecture. He outlines his approach in a number of different ways. Firstly, he says that he pursues his investigation in an evolutionary way; by which he means to understand the biblical literature within an evolutionary process of human reflection and sense making. But the fact that he wants to understand scripture within this particular framework implies that he has already decided that the experiences of the world that give rise to religious thought are either purely natural (i.e. explicable within a framework of natural causes and evolutionary development) or that the biblical text is the result of a purely human process of reflection. Again, Peterson is rather unclear as to how he understands human experience of the world and he explicitly dodges the metaphysical questions about such experience.  Ideally these metaphysical questions need to be resolved before interpreting the biblical text. Different understandings of the world and our experience of it will lead to fundamentally different interpretations of the Bible. C. S. Lewis points this out in his book Miracles, 

“For this reason, the question whether miracles occur can never be answered simply by experience. Every event which might claim to be a miracle is, in the last resort, something presented to our senses, something seen, heard, touched, smelled or tasted. And our senses are not infallible. If anything extraordinary seems to have happened, we can always say that we have been the victims of an illusion. If we hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural, this is what we always shall say. What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience. It is therefore useless to appeal to experience before we have settled, as well as we can, the philosophical question.” 

The problem for Peterson is that he doesn’t seem to have resolved the philosophical questions adequately before explaining the psychological significance of the Bible. And that, I think, is why he has the tendency to treat God as a kind of psychological construct rather than an ontological reality.

Peterson does hint at answers to the ontological questions but ultimately continues to avoid them. This is fair enough, he is a psychologist after all and not a theologian or philosopher. I just wish that he’d been clearer on the role that such philosophical questions play in interpretation. For example, when he outlines his approach as being literary, as well as evolutionary and psychological, he touches on postmodern literary theory. Peterson says that the postmodernists went wrong by undermining the objectivity and meaning of texts. The logical result of the postmodern view of the world is an unlivable existential situation where everything proves to be meaningless. And yet, Peterson still fails to provide a well rounded metaphysical view to replace postmodern literary theory. He says that we judge the validity of an interpretation on whether it coheres well with our experience (so he commits himself to a coherentist epistemology) but an ontological explanation for the experiences that we have is still lacking. We need answers to questions like: is our experience of the world as something that seems to be designed best explained by design or by chance? What kind of reality produces the experiences that we have? These preliminary (and fundamental) philosophical questions remain unanswered by Peterson which lead to his particularly idiosyncratic and slightly muddled reading of scripture in the latter half of the lecture. He ends up trying to interpret a book about God without answering the question as to whether God exists.

Peterson continues to outline his approach by trying to figure out how the Bible makes sense morally, how it can speak to us practically and on whether it makes sense rationally. Peterson wants “it all laid out causally.” The danger, again, is that Peterson tries to interpret the Bible in a way that bypasses what its authors were intending when writing it. By ‘causally’ he seems to mean ‘deductively’, as in “if then b” . But philosophers have pointed out for millennia that argumentation need not be purely deductive, it can also be inductive and talk in terms of probabilities without necessitating irrationality. In other words, a leap of faith isn’t essentially irrational. We might have very good reasons for believing in something on the basis of probability. It is perfectly rational to believe that the sun will rise tomorrow given the fact that the sun has always risen before. I can’t say for certain that the sun will rise, but I can say it with confidence on the basis of the background information and experience that I have contributing to its high probability. Despite seeking to avoid being overly reductionist then, Peterson seems to have walked into reductionism by trying to purge his treatment of the Bible of induction which is, put simply, impossible. Induction is an essential part of the interpretive process. Again, this isn’t surprising since Peterson isn’t primarily a philosopher or theologian. But these theological and philosophical questions are precisely those questions that need to be answered adequately if we are to interpret the Bible properly.

Moving swiftly on, Peterson outlines what the Bible is.  Written by different people over a vast time period Peterson finds it astonishing that by its finale it forms one unified narrative. The question he then asks being “what is that narrative about?” He describes it as a narrative that tries to elucidate human experience. It is a document composed of reflections on the deepest questions raised by human beings. I can see why he might say this, but again, anyone who’s read the Bible will know that this isn’t entirely what its authors claim to be doing. The Bible isn’t a collection of ‘armchair and pipe’ theologians reflecting on human existence. Rather, the Biblical authors claims to be speaking about genuine divine revelation that has taken place within concrete historical situations. The Bible isn’t a reflection on what it means to be human, but on understanding who God is in the light of the things he’s done in human history through his people and in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. That’s why covenant plays such a central role in the Bible. Covenant is about a relationship between two parties. The Bible is covenantal in that it isn’t a human monologue, but the result of divine and human interaction in history (just look at the book of Deuteronomy which reflects all of the features of ancient covenantal documents). The Bible can’t be isolated from these historical experiences, and the experiences can’t be isolated from divine revelation because the text makes it clear that God’s interactions with people in history prompted its writing.

 

Initial Reflections on Jordan Peterson’s Biblical Series

Jordan Peterson

This last week I began to listen to Jordan Peterson’s lectures on the psychological significance of the Bible. A good deal of popular discussion has grown up around Jordan Peterson in what has been hailed as ‘the Jordan Peterson phenomenon’. A Canadian academic who has heavily criticized rabid forms of political correctness, Peterson has also spent some time philosophizing and reflecting on the Bible from his own discipline of psychology. It is worth noting at the outset that Peterson doesn’t claim to be a Christian. However, what I’ve found quite remarkable in my first hour of listening to Peterson, are the similarities between his understanding of the Bible and G. K. Chesterton’s analysis of myth. I think Chesterton articulates himself more concisely and with greater clarity, but it is interesting to see the significant parallels between what Peterson is saying and what Chesterton, Lewis, MacDonald, and Tolkien were saying in the early to mid twentieth century.

The first hour or so of Peterson’s lectures don’t treat any specific stories from the Bible but lay a kind of philosophical, theological and psychological groundwork to frame his future discussions of the biblical stories. Peterson asks, ‘What is it about the Bible that has meant that it’s had such a profound and enduring impact on human society and psychology?’ His answer to that question is that the Bible provides a kind of integrated worldview that holds things together in a way that does justice to our experience of a world that isn’t reducible to rationalistic analysis.

Peterson makes much of the existential questions that prompt this ubiquitous interest in religion. ‘Is there a God? Where did everything come from? What is my place in the world?’  And he develops this initial observation in conversation with the atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. According to Peterson, Nietzsche thought that Christianity’s demise was inevitable since it had to be integrated with every area of human life. Since, according to Nietzsche, Christianity was false, it could never be fully integrated with every area of human life and would eventually undermine itself.

Of course, this particularly Nietzchean form of the observation assumes atheism, but minus the atheism, what Peterson wants to say is that Christianity and religion in general is pervasive and powerful because it seeks to be an all-encompassing worldview integrating all the different facets of human experience. Christianity seeks to answer the existential questions that cannot be adequately answered by scientific explanation alone. This observation has been made over and over again by Christian theologians in recent years. Its not that Christianity and science are incompatible, but that they seek to answer different questions in a complementary manner. If science answers the ‘how’ questions, Christianity answers the ‘why’ questions. Christianity enables us to properly frame scientific discovery within an integrated whole.

One thing that Peterson stresses is the necessity of such integration for psychological satisfaction and wholeness and he is adamant that ideologies (fascism, marxism, feminism, democracy, etc) while significant, fail to answer these existential questions because they are not intended as integrated worldviews, or all-encompassing frameworks for making sense of the entirety of human experience. When we promote ideology to the space reserved for some sort of religious or mythological (myth in Chesterton’s sense explained in previous blogs) explanation there are terrible consequences. The example that Peterson uses to demonstrate this is the horrific growth of fascism in Nazi Germany. In Nazi Germany, fascism became religious.

So the Bible is significant inasmuch as it successfully integrates the entirety of human experience. This includes both its ability to explain those things that we understand, but also its ability to speak into those things we believe subconsciously or have yet to articulate. The Biblical story is psychologically significant in that it speaks to the pressing existential questions that continually get asked by humans in everyday life. Here too Peterson notes that these questions are rather peculiar to human beings. Chimpanzee’s don’t have this moral or existential reflective capacity. Anyone that has read Chesterton will see the parallels; human experience is radically different from the experience of other animals and it prompts questions and reflections that are both moral and existential in character. Stories and art reflect these rhythms and graspings at truths in a way that demonstrates the exceptional character of human experience and reflection.

Since these moral and existential questions press themselves so repeatedly and with such overwhelming force we all develop some kind of underlying mythology (worldview) to frame those questions and experiences. Peterson counsels us to be aware of our underlying mythology because it could well be that our mythology is inadequate.  Again, this insight has been pointed out in recent years by theologians. Everything, according to theologians like John Milbank, is theological. When people claim to have found some sort of secular space free from considerations of wordlview or theological assumption they inevitably do make theological assumptions that end up being rather questionable indeed.

So, having taken almost an hour to say all this we can sum up what Peterson has said in three stages. Firstly, humans begin with their own experience of things or phenomena. Secondly, those things cry out for explanation and find themselves articulated in a variety of forms; art, dreams, and music. Humans begin to try and articulate their experience of the world. Thirdly, these explanations reach full conscious articulation and are codified. Peterson seems to suggest that the Bible has had such a psychological impact because it is humanity’s best attempt at articulating the questions that arise from human experience.

Now, I would want to press this further. The question that I want to ask in response is “why”? Why is the Bible our best attempt? This further question has been asked before. It is the question that C.S. Lewis and Chesterton both seemed to ask before their conversion. The obvious answer to the question is that the Bible is our best attempt at answering these questions and providing an integrated worldview because what it teaches actually happened. It most adequately meets human existential needs and speaks to human experiences because it has been put together by the one who created human beings in the first place.

What is odd about Peterson’s lecture though, is that he seems to veer away from this conclusion at the last minute. He seems so focused on the psychological significance of the Bible and its story that he reduces the idea of God to a psychological construct or abstraction. Like Chesterton said over a hundred years ago, the whole trouble with Peterson’s lecture, “comes from a man trying to look at these stories from the outside, as if they were scientific objects.” And having stressed the importance of the existential questions raised by human experience so heavily, it is odd that Peterson then goes on to speak of the biblical stories predominantly as reflections on what it means to be just or moral as opposed to attempts at explaining genuinely spiritual experiences. In contrast, I would want to say that unless God exists, not simply as a psychological construct but as a metaphysical reality, then the spiritual and existential character of human experience continues to cry out for adequate explanation.

Far from being a kind of moral allegory the Bible speaks in a way that does justice to our spiritual as well as moral experience of the world only if what it says is metaphysically and not only psychologically true. Peterson seems to have fallen into a trap that G. K. Chesterton highlighted n his chapter on “Man and Mythologies” in The Everlasting Man. Chesterton writes, “It is often said that pagan mythology was a personification of the powers of nature. The phrase is true in a sense, but it is very unsatisfactory; because it implies that the forces are abstractions and the personification is artificial. Myths are not allegories.” Ironically, after calling us to be aware of our underlying worldview, Peterson seems to interpret the Bible in terms of allegory. He interprets the Bible as an allegory of purely natural phenomena. I think this reflects a remaining hesitation on Peterson’s part. Peterson seems to be unsure as to whether people have genuine spiritual experiences which forces him to understand the Bible in terms of moral allegory right at the last moment. In other words, the problem with Peterson’s analysis of the Bible as a reflection on human experience is that he hasn’t fully understood, articulated or explained the nature of that experience. I look forward to seeing how this works itself out in the rest of his lectures.

Chesterton Talks Demons

Chesterton described mythology as ‘day dreaming’. This was not in the sense of ‘fanciful lies’ but in the sense that they were imaginative ways of describing a world that can’t be reduced to natural processes. Mythology is a grasping at a spiritual reality. The flip side of day dreaming however, is nightmare. Moving on from God and the gods, Chesterton now treats ‘the demons’.

Underlying all of this rather innocent grasping at spirituality was the “weakness of original sin.” (11) “This disproportion dragged down the winged fancies and filled the end of paganism with a mere filth and litter of spawning gods.” (11). The problem with mythology is fundamentally rooted in a problem with human beings. Human beings have the curious habit of ruining good things.

The difference between mythology and this nightmarish alternative is that where mythology was about imagination; superstition is concerned with manipulation. The nightmare occurs when mythology is transformed by human sinfulness and selfish will to power. They moved from imaginative grasping to things of their own manipulative creation. “A South American idol was made as ugly as possible, as a Greek image was made as beautiful as possible. They were seeking the secret of power, by working backwards against their own nature and the nature of things.” (116).

With this Chesterton has noted a fundamental similarity between myth and its destruction and God’s good creation and its fall. The fundamental problem with the world isn’t God’s good creation, but human sin. The creation was originally good, but was corrupted by the sin of human beings. In the early chapters of Genesis we read, “The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” (Gen. 6:5). The good news of Christianity is that God is seeking to restore all things to himself and make all things new. “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Jesus],  and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Col. 1:19-20).

 

Tim’s Dissertation for Beginners

Recently I finished a massive 15,000 word dissertation for my MA degree in theology! Needless to say, it was a wordy, complex, and at times tedious process. But I chose the topic of my dissertation with a practical goal in mind. The best kind of theology is theology aimed at deepening our love for God and worship of him, as well as our knowledge of him. I wanted to reflect deeply on one of the key elements of the Christian story academically so I could better communicate the amazing good news of that story to the people around me. In the next few posts I want to explain what my dissertation is all about so that those ‘sitting in the pew’ might better appreciate what it means to say that Jesus really is ‘good news’.

A great place to begin to unpack this is by considering the Bible itself. The Bible is basically a story of rescue. It constantly speaks of a God who becomes involved in human history in order to save and deliver people. God is repeatedly described as a rescuer and refuge, a deliverer and savior. Theologians often sum up the Bible story using the phrase, ‘narrative of salvation’. Ultimately, the Bible isn’t a moral guide, or a history book (though both of those things are important, see 1 Corinthians 15), it is primarily a story of salvation. It describes and recounts the works of a God who doesn’t stand at a distance, set the machine going, and leave it at that, but a God who seeks relationship with people, gets involved in people’s lives, and seeks to save his people from harm.

Psalm 18 is a brilliant example,

“The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.”

All of this culminates in the arrival of Jesus. In fact, Jesus’ name means ‘God saves’ and Jesus speaks of himself as the ultimate fulfillment of God’s rescue mission (John 5:39). The apostle John (3:17) sums it up when he writes,

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

You might have experienced talk like this if you’ve ever been to a Church service. You may have heard Christians say, “Jesus saved me” or you might have seen cars sporting battered bumper stickers with the words ‘Jesus saves!’ printed in comic sans. My dissertation was all about what it means for someone to be ‘saved’. What are we saved from? Why are we saved and for what purpose? And how is it that God saves us?

SoteriologyThese kinds of questions are questions concerning what theologians call ‘soteriology’ taken from the Greek word for salvation. They’re basically questions of ‘salvation-ology’ and the answers to each have been rather controversial at decisive points in Christian history. Different answers to the question of how God saves us were influential at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. More recently, the original answers given to these questions by Protestants have been questioned by some Protestant theologians. I sought to defend the traditional answers against some of these recent objections. In order to explain my dissertation I’ll attempt to unpack these questions in order over the next few posts (for those who are still reading) with the hope that it will encourage us to worship God more deeply and seek him more wholeheartedly.

 

Chesterton on Mythology and Religion

Chesterton Painting

In the last post we saw how Chesterton took issue with comparative religion. In its place he provided a number of new headings within which to understand religious claims and worldviews. The basic gist of the argument under the first heading, ‘God’, was to suggest that monotheism is less a development of polytheistic theology and more likely its foundational idea. Over the course of history this simple idea was forgotten through cultural amalgamation and accommodation giving way to polytheistic religious pluralism. “…the whole world melted into this mass of confused mythology.”

With this statement, Chesterton sets up his next move. He now begins to treat his second heading, ‘the gods’, which he discusses by trying to unpack the purpose of mythology. What is mythology? Why do we create mythologies? How directly does mythology relate to Christianity? Again, Chesterton’s treatment of myth anticipates the common jibes of the New Atheism. Many Christians are familiar with the Atheistic quip that belief in Santa Clause and Jesus are analogous. But Chesterton challenges this claim with a rather odd statement, “They [mythology and Christianity] are fundamentally different exactly where they are superficially similar; we might almost say they are not the same even when they are the same.” (109).

What does Chesterton mean by this? He begins by pointing us to aesthetics. A work of mythology should not be analysed scientifically, it is instead, a work of art and intended to be so. “We do not submit a sonnet to a mathematician or a song to a calculating boy; but we do indulge the equally fantastic idea that folk-lore can be treated as a science.” (95). This is a problem that doesn’t only apply to mythology. All manner of things are often evaluated against the wrong criteria. For example, the quality of a painting shouldn’t be judged by the amount of money it sells for. The problem with many treatments of myth is similar, they are often understood within the wrong framework. Myths are not to be understood scientifically but aesthetically. Mythologies are not attempts to provide scientific theory or mathematical axioms. They are not abstractions in the same way that we deduce a theory of gravity from a falling apple. Rather, mythology attempts to make sense of what is unknown, not by abstraction, but by use of the imagination.

When in fairy stories water or woodland are given a personality, the personality is not intended as an insignificant addition. “The point is that the personality perfects the water with significance.” (99). It captures something that can never really be captured by scientific theory; it reaches out to an aesthetic reality. The test of a good myth is not whether it meets the standards of scientific inquiry, the test is imaginative.

“Father Christmas is not an allegory of snow and holly; he is not merely the stuff called snow afterwards artificially given human form, like a snow man. He is something that gives a new meaning to the white world and the evergreens; so that snow itself seems to be warm rather than cold. The test therefore is purely imaginative. But imaginative does not mean imaginary.” (99).

Mythology isn’t too dissimilar from painting a landscape. I often go and find a quiet spot with some watercolours and attempt to put what I see to paper. But even when I really like a painting it never really captures the place fully. It is an attempt at an image, not the thing itself. Even then though, I recognize that painting captures something that a cold description never could. “Every true artist does feel, consciously or unconsciously, that he is touching transcendental truths; that his images are shadows of things seen through a veil.” (99). “In other words, the natural mystic does know that there is something there; something behind the clouds or within the trees; but he believes that the pursuit of beauty is the way to find it; that imagination is a sort of incantation that can call it up.” (99).

You will recall that Chesterton noted in earlier chapters that this tendency to create mythology is universal. This is an anthropological fact. It is this kind of spiritual sense that gives impetus to the creation of mythology; just as the beauty of a scene gives impetus for trying to describe it in oils. “The substance of all such paganism may be summarized thus. It is an attempt to reach the divine reality through the imagination alone; in its own field reason does not restrain it at all.” (105). For that very reason, paganism as such isn’t really defined in terms of creed or confession. It is in a very real sense only a kind of day-dreaming. It is not fixed in what it believes. “So the mythological imagination moves as it were in circles, hovering either to find a place or to return to it. In a word, mythology is a search; it is something that combines a recurrent desire with a recurrent doubt, mixing the most hungry sincerity in the idea of a seeking for a place with a most dark and deep and mysterious levity about all the places found.” (107). It is a very sincere attempt at finding something in the dark, and yet it is not so sincere as to become thoroughly dogmatic, it was never intended to be.

This particular observation is found in the works of C. S. Lewis who read The Everlasting Man around the time of his conversion to Christianity. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, echoing Chesterton, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” Paganism and mythology are a way of describing that desire and, as Chesterton said, such mythology, while produced from the imagination needn’t be imaginary. “A picture may look like a landscape; it may look in every detail exactly like a landscape. The only detail in which it differs is that it is not a landscape.” (108).

Myth isn’t functioning here as a kind of fanciful lie, it is an attempt to provide a worldview, an account of things, which looks beyond a reductionist rationalism. There are things in the world that rationalism can’t reach. The concept of myth wasn’t understood by Chesterton in the way we understand it today. Myth was understood as an imaginative way of describing things that are not reducible to rationalistic formulae.

And then we come to Christianity. Where myth was only ever intended as a kind of day dream or artistic reaching, we find in Christianity, not only something that makes aesthetic sense of the world, but that does so while claiming to be a description of the true reality of things.

Lewis explains, “Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e., the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’.”

The difference between Paganism or pure mythology, is that in Paganism “…the rivers of mythology and philosophy run parallel [they] do not mingle until they meet in the sea of Christendom.” (106). Christianity was never intended to be a day dream, it is instead rooted in historical events. It is not simply a search in the dark, for it claims that when Jesus entered the world, the light was switched on. Jesus did say, after all, in John 8:12, ““I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” The story of Jesus explains the sense of the numinous that we find so prevalent in humans throughout the world but, unlike other myths (here understood as imaginative attempts to explain a world that can’t be explicated in terms of pure reason), this one corresponds exactly to the reality of things in a way that is intended to be more than aesthetic.

 

Chesterton, God, and Comparative Religion

Polytheism

Chesterton smashed through common misconceptions regarding biological and social evolution with wit and common sense. Now he seeks to outline the history of religion. He begins by pointing out that the most common kind of religion we tend to see in our modern societies is the worship of self, or the worship of humanity as a whole.

“In the days of my youth the Religion of Humanity was a term commonly applied to Comtism, the theory of certain rationalists who worshipped corporate mankind as a Supreme Being. Even in the days of my youth, I remarked that there was something slightly odd about despising and dismissing the doctrine of the Trinity as a mystical and even maniacal contradiction; and then asking us to adore a deity who is a hundred million persons in one God, neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.” (76-77)

But even prior to this Religion of Humanity there existed and continues to exist an almost universal Paganism arising out of what appears to be a universal religious sense inherent to humanity. And “When I am speaking of this thing, therefore, I am speaking of something that doubtless includes very wide differences; nevertheless I will here maintain that it is one thing.” (78). “This thing is Paganism; and I propose to show in these pages that it is the one real rival to the Church of Christ.” (78).

Chesterton goes on to say something about how to classify these religious points of view. The regular way of doing it is to compare them in terms of their holy books, or founder, or moral code. This is the kind of thing we see so ubiquitously in our current school system. Religions are compared under the assumption that they are all variations of the same thing. Stereophonics sang,

“You can find yourself a God
Believe in which one you want
Cause they love you all the same
They just go by different names”

But Chesterton, I think, quite rightly protests, “When we come to look at it closely we find it comparing things that are really quite incomparable.” (78) “We are accustomed to see the names of the great religious founders all in a row: Christ; Mahomet; Buddha; Confucius. But in truth this is only a trick; another of these optical illusions by which any objects may be put into a particular relation by shifting to a particular point of sight.” (78-79). Comparing worldviews is much more complex than is often realized, and to treat them all on the same plane tends to flatten them out beyond all recognition. Perhaps it is this attitude that underpins that false assumption that many have about Christianity, namely, the myth that you get to heaven on the basis of the good works you’ve done. Perhaps this is true of other religions, or at least those that posit heaven, but the Christian concept of grace renders this comparative interpretation of Christianity totally false.

This regular way of comparing religions, then, isn’t entirely adequate. In its place Chesterton proposes to compare religions, or at least, draw out their differences by using a different system of classification. “I shall here submit an alternative classification of religion or religions, which I believe would be found to cover all the facts and, what is quite important here, all the fancies.” (81). He treats religions under a number of different headings or themes; ‘God’, ‘the gods’, ‘the Demons’, and ‘the philosophers’ and begins with the first.

Belief in God, or monotheism, ‘the most simple and sublime’ of all the above, is primordial. A monotheistic God is entirely different from the created world and often underpins the polytheism of most pagan cultures. “There is a striking example in a tale taken down word for word from a Red Indian in California, which starts out with hearty legendary and literary relish: ‘The sun is the father and ruler of the heavens. He is the big chief. The moon is his wife and the stars are their children’; and so on through a most ingenious and complicated story, in the middle of which is a sudden parenthesis saying that the sun and moon have to do something because ‘It is ordered that way by the Great Spirit Who lives above the place of all.’ That is exactly the attitude of most paganism towards God. He is something assumed and forgotten and remembered by accident; a habit possibly not peculiar to pagans.” (82-83).

Belief in ‘the’ God, belief in the source of all things, so totally other that he created the world and is unbound by time and space is not an idea that gradually develops. It is a belief that is often assumed, and belief in a Being so discontinuous with the created order that it doesn’t so much evolve as it was always tacitly known. This one simple idea didn’t evolve, “The idea was concealed, was avoided, was almost forgotten, was even explained away; but it was never evolved.” (84). If anything polytheism is a development of this one simple idea. It is a kind of syncretism of a number of different monotheisms meeting with each other. “Gods and demigods and heroes breed like herrings before our very eyes, and suggest of themselves that the family may have had one founder; mythology grows more and more complicated, and the very complication suggests that at the beginning it was more simple.” (86). All of these pagan mythologies are attempts at reaching out to this initial simple idea. They sense that there is a religious reality that underpins all things, and this is perhaps motivated less by the presence of God and more by his absence. Something is missing.

This observation very much reminded me of that famous quote from the British columnist Bernard Levin,

“Countries like ours are full of people who have all the material comforts they desire, together with such non-material blessings as a happy family, and yet lead lives of quiet, and at times noisy, desperation, understanding nothing but the fact that there is a hole inside them and that however much food and drink they pour into it, however many motor cars and television sets they stuff it with, however many well balanced children and loyal friends they parade around the edges of it…it aches.”

Why have people forgotten this one God, this simple and yet utterly beautiful idea? Chesterton again points us to polytheism. In meeting with other cultures and continents people amalgamated their God with the gods of others. “They admitted them to equal thrones with their own; sometimes they identified them with their own.” (88).

“And this point is very important in many controversies ancient and modern. It is regarded as a liberal and enlightened thing to say that the god of the stranger may be as good as our own; and doubtless the pagans thought themselves very liberal and enlightened when they agreed to add to the gods of the city or the hearth some wild and fantastic Dionysus coming down from the mountains or some shaggy and rustic Pan creeping out of the woods. But exactly what it lost by these larger ideas is the largest idea of all.” (89)

Very often the beautiful and the simple is associated with a bygone era and the new and novel associated with liberality and enlightenment. Those who cling stubbornly to the old religion are considered ‘superstitious’ or ‘savage’. And as Chesterton rightly points out, this has been the case with that people who have clung to this simple idea so obstinately, the Jews. “It is true in this sense, humanly speaking, that the world owes God to the Jews.” (89). They were totally against syncretism of every kind and as such preserved this simple idea.

As if responding to Dawkins almost a hundred years before the God Delusion Chesterton writes, “It is often said with a sneer that the God of Israel was only a God of Battles, ‘a mere barbaric Lord of Hosts’ pitted in rivalry against other gods only as their envious foe. Well it is for the world that he was a God of Battles. Well it is for us that he was to all the rest only a rival and a foe. In the ordinary way, it would have been only too easy for them to have achieved the desolate disaster of conceiving him as a friend. It would have been only too easy for them to have seen him stretching out his hands in love and reconciliation, embracing Baal and kissing the painted face of Astarte, feasting in fellowship with the gods; the last god to sell his crown of stars for the Soma of the Indian pantheon or the nectar of Olympus or the mead of Valhalla.” (90).

“As it was, while the whole world melted into this mass of confused mythology, this Deity who is called tribal and narrow, precisely because he was what is called tribal and narrow, preserved the primary religion of all mankind. He was tribal enough to be universal. He was as narrow as the universe.” (91).

 

Chesterton and the Antiquity of Civilization

Ancient Egypt

Having begun with his reflections on caricatures of prehistoric man and biological evolution, Chesterton turns his attention to the development of civilization. Here again he takes our common understanding of civilization to task. Humanity isn’t quite what we expect it to be. Against a theory of gradual socio-political progress from barbarism to civilization Chesterton writes that “The dawn of history reveals a humanity already civilized.” (50). In other words, the first civilizations that we know of precede records of themselves. Ancient civilizations existed long before they began to record their own history.

This idea of change from the barbaric to the civilized is what Chesterton is seeking to challenge. The early civilizations of the earth are often characterized as barbaric dictatorships run by heartless despots. But given that our early records of these civilizations only give us a tiny glimpse of early history such pictures of early man are highly speculative. Given that such early history is so speculative, and given that early records arise out of civilized societies, we do well to understand such societies more cautiously in light of the history of politics and societies that we really do know of.  Instead, “If there is one fact we really can prove, from the history that we really do know, it is that despotism can be a development, often a late development and very often indeed the end of societies that have been highly democratic.” (53). And again, “According to the real records available, barbarism and civilization were not successive stages in the progress of the world. They were conditions that existed side by side, as they still exist side by side.” (56).

That early history is open to such speculative theorizing also opens up the possibility of another danger. The danger I am referring to is ‘projection’. What is projection? Projection takes place when we ‘project’ our ideas onto things. A very current example would be the debate over Brexit. Brexit is a particularly vague term that generally refers to the UK’s leaving of the European Union. But precisely what that looks like isn’t laid out by the term Brexit itself and so many people read into the word what they’d like it to be.

With regard to the history of early civilization Chesterton writes, “…it may be noted that as soon as feminism became a fashionable cry, it was insisted that human civilization in its first stage had been a matriarchy. Apparently it was the cave-woman who carried the club. Anyhow all these ideas are little better than guesses; and they have a curious way of following the fortune of modern theories and fads.” (57).

Again, human beings are unique. We find them already civilized when we read the earliest records. We find that barbarism and civilization are not successive stages in a world history of gradual process but that they often coexist, and one leads to the other in all manner of orders. Chesterton finishes by drawing our attention to the Iliad. It is perhaps one of the oldest poems we know of but it is also one of the best. It is a poem likely to outlive all other poems, and yet it came from one of the earth’s early societies. Human beings were unique from their beginning.

 

A Wander Through History with Chesterton

ChestertonG. K. Chesterton has often been hailed the ‘apostle of common sense’. He has the uncanny ability to draw out the wonderful from the mundane and the religiously significant from that which hides in plain sight. It’s no different with The Everlasting Man, Chesterton’s history of the world with an emphasis on answering the age old question: “What makes human beings uniquely human.”

Chesterton offers such rich and rewarding insights that I’m going to sum up each chapter of the book in the hope that I might be able to distill his thinking in a way which makes them more accessible to those who have never thought about the question, or those who might want to know a bit more about Chesterton.

The Everlasting Man begins with a rather excellent chapter on prehistoric man. Here Chesterton begins his history and immediately engages the social Darwinist movement so popular at the beginning of the twentieth century. He notes that when we think of ‘the cave man’ we often imagine a rather ugly figure, perhaps named Og, who goes around beating people with a club and wondering why square wheels don’t work. But Chesterton makes the striking observation that this kind of caricature of stone age humanity finds itself ruined by one of the only enduring contributions of stone age human beings themselves, namely, cave paintings.

“When novelists and educationists and psychologists of all sorts talk about the cave-man, they never conceive him in connection with anything that is really in the cave. When the realist of the sex novel writes, ‘Red sparks danced in Dagmar Doubledick’s brain; he felt the spirit of the cave-man rising within him,’ the novelist’s readers would be very much disappointed if Dagmar only went off and drew large pictures of cows on the drawing-room wall.” (25)

“Yet we do know for a fact that the cave-man did these mild and innocent things; and we do not have the most minute speck of evidence that he did any of the violent and ferocious things.” (25)

What such paintings indicate about human beings, is that for all their commonality with the animal kingdom there is something strikingly different about them. So striking that it produces art, reflection, and self-conscious appreciation for the natural world. The kind of characteristics that are found nowhere else in the animal world.

Such a striking, yet often overlooked observation has a direct impact on the way we view evolution in relation to the human being. There is something miraculous and unnatural about human beings. The time it takes for such unnatural and startling abilities to occur does nothing to take away their total discontinuity with what came before.

“There may be a broken trail of stone and bone faintly suggesting the development of the human body. There is nothing even faintly suggesting such a development of this human mind. It was not and it was; we know not in what instant or in what infinity of years.” (32-33).

For example, when Jesus turned water into wine in Galilee in John 2:1-11, it would have remained utterly miraculous even if it had been transformed drip by drip and not jar by jar. The time it takes for a miracle to happen has no impact on its being miraculous. “But this notion of something smooth and slow, like the ascent of a slope, is a great part of the illusion. It is an illogicality as well as an illusion; for slowness has really nothing to do with the question. An event is not any more intrinsically intelligible or unintelligible because of the pace at which it moves. For a man who does not believe in a miracle, a slow miracle would be just as incredible as a swift one.” (19).

Chesterton also asks us to consider evolution itself. If evolution be considered as that biological theory that seeks to explain the natural diversity we see in living organisms, whether by adaption or mutation, it does nothing to explain the origin of that life in the first place, or even the origin of the conditions in which such life might arise. The conclusion of the first chapter, then, is that there is something totally unique about human beings that sets them apart from everything else and evolution acts more as a foil, instead of an explanation, as to why human beings are so distinct. Human beings remain remarkable whether evolution takes place or not.