Sunday, November 11, 2012

John meets Mr. Enlightenment

It was another late night with only a little sleep. It was also another night of random book selections from my library. Last night's pick: The Pilgrim's Regress, by C. S. Lewis.  Below is an excerpt which I just had to share because it describes in vivid details the honest curiosity and skepticism of a young Christian man in the face of rationalism and the autonomous wisdom of the world.

The story below is about a young man named John from the land of Puritania who meets a man named Mr. Enlightenment for the first time; and as they both travel down a road together in a horse buggy, John encounters the intriguing perspectives of an "enlightened" life for the first time:

"And where might you come from, my fine lad?" said Mr. Enlightenment.
    "From Puritania, sir," said John.
"A good place to leave, eh?"
    "I am so glad you think that," cried John. "I was afraid ---"
"I hope I am a man of the world," said Mr. Enlightenment. "Any young fellow who is anxious to better himself may depend on finding sympathy and support in me.  Puritania! Why, I suppose you have been brought up to be afraid of the Landlord."1
    "Well, I must admit I sometimes do feel rather nervous."
"You may make your mind easy, my boy. There is no such person."
    "There is no Landlord?"
"There is absolutely no such thing -- I might even say no such entity -- in existence. There never has been and never will be."
    "And is this absolutely certain?" cried John; for a great hope was rising in his heart.
"Absolutely certain. Look at me, young man. I ask you -- do I look as if I was easily taken in?"
    "Oh, no," said John hastily. "I was just wondering, though.  I mean -- how did they all come to think there was such a person?"
"The Landlord is an invention of those Stewards.2 All made up to keep the rest of us under their thumb: and of course the Stewards are hand in glove with the police. They are the shrewd lot, those Stewards. They know which side their bread is buttered on, all right. Clever fellows. Damn me, I can't help admiring them."
    "But do you mean that the Stewards don't believe it themselves?"
"I dare say they do. It is just the sort of cock and bull story they would believe. They are simple old souls most of them -- just like children. They have no knowledge of modern science and they would believe anything they were told."

John was silent for a few minutes. Then he began again:

    "But how do you know there is no Landlord?"
"Christopher Columbus, Galileo, the earth is round, invention of printing, gunpowder! !" exclaimed Mr. Enlightenment in such a loud voice that the pony shied.
    "I beg your pardon," said John.
"Eh?' said Mr. Enlightenment.
    "I didn't quite understand," said John.
"Why, it's as plain as a pikestaff," said the other. "Your people in Puritania believe in the Landlord because they have not had the benefits of a scientific training.  For example, I dare say it would be news to you to hear that the earth was round -- round as an orange, my lad!"
    "Well, I don't know that it would," said John, feeling a little disappointed.  "My father always said it was round."
"No, no, my dear boy," said Mr. Enlightenment, "you must have misunderstood him. It is well known that everyone in Puritania thinks the earth is flat. It is not likely that I should be mistaken on such a point. Indeed, it is out of the question. Then again, there is the paleontological evidence."
    "What's that?"
"Why, they tell you in Puritania that the Landlord made all these roads. But that is quite impossible for old people can remember the time when the roads were not nearly so good as they are now. And what is more, scientists have found all over the country the traces of old roads running in quite different directions. The inference is obvious."

John said nothing.

"I said," repeated Mr. Enlightenment, "that the inference was obvious."
    "Oh, yes, yes, of course," said John hastily, turning a little red.
"Then, again, there is anthropology."
    "I'm afraid I don't know --"
"Bless me, of course you don't. They don't mean you to know. An anthropologist is a man who goes round your backyard villages in these parts, collecting the odd stories that the country people tell about the Landlord. Why, there is one village where they think he has a trunk like an elephant. Now anyone can see that that couldn't be true."
    "It is very unlikely."
"And what is better still, we know how the villagers came to think so. It all began by an elephant escaping from the local zoo; and then some old villager -- he was probably drunk -- saw it wandering about on the mountain one night, and so the story grew up that the Landlord had a trunk."
    "Did they catch the elephant again?"
"Did who?"
    "The anthropologists."
"Oh, my dear boy, you are misunderstanding. This happened long before there were anthropologists."
    "Then how do they know?"
"Well, as to that . . . I see that you have a very crude notion of how science actually works. To put it simply -- for, of course, you could not understand the technical explanation -- to put it simply, they know that the escaped elephant must have been the source of the trunk story because they know that an escaped snake must have been the source of the snake story in the next village -- and so on. This is called the inductive method. Hypothesis, my dear young friend, establishes itself by a cumulative process: or, to use popular language, if you make the same guess often enough it ceases to be a guess and becomes a Scientific Fact.

After he had thought for a while, John said:
    "I think I see.  Most of the stories about the Landlord are probably untrue; therefore the rest are probably untrue."
"Well, that is as near as a beginner can get to it, perhaps. But when you have had a scientific training you will find that you can be quite certain about all sorts of things which now seem to you only probable."3

1.  The "Landlord" is the owner of the entire country in which all the characters of the story live.
2.  "Stewards" are people delegated by the Landlord to make rules and uphold moral standards for the entire country.
3.  C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim's Regress [Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co: Grand Rapids, MI; 1992] pp. 20-22

Friday, November 9, 2012

Evolutionary Hymn

Lead us, Evolution, lead us
Up the future's endless stair:
Chop us, change us, prod us, weed us.
For stagnation is despair: 
Groping, guessing, yet progressing, 
Lead us nobody knows where.

To whatever variation 
Our posterity may turn
Hairy, squashy, or crustacian, 
Bulbous-eyed or square of stern,
Tusked or toothless, mild or ruthless,
Towards that unknown god we yearn.

Ask not if it's god or devil,
Brethren, lest your words imply
Static norms of good and evil
(As in Plato) throned on high;
Such scholastic, inelastic, 
Abstract yardsticks we deny.

On then! Value means survival-
Value. If our progeny
Spreads and spawns and licks each rival,
That will prove its deity
(Far from pleasant, by our present
Standards, though it well may be).1

C. S. Lewis
"Evolutionary Hymn"

1.  C. S. Lewis, Poems [Harvest/HBJ; 1977] pp. 55-56

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Habit-forming worship

When human beings worship God the creator, articulating their praise and adoration because of who he is and what he's done, they are, whether or not they realize it, summing up the praises and adoration of the whole creation. That is another reason why the physical expression of worship, in liturgy and especially in the sacraments, remains important. We shouldn't expect to worship as disembodied souls who happen to be temporarily resident in these strange things called physical bodies, and then to be able to do our job as God's royal priesthood, picking up creation's praises and presenting them before God's throne. Remember: that is what we are called to do and to be. Don't be surprised if the body language of worshippers expresses something of what is being said and done. No doubt this, too, can become a hollowed-out habit, to be challenged from time to time in the name of authenticity. But to frown on the physical expression of worship (gestures of hand and arm, of head and knee, whatever) -- as though all such things were signs of hypocrisy or the attempt to put God in our debt -- would be as ridiculous as to suppose that such expressions were all that was required, without the devotion of the heart and mind. 
...The life of worship, then, is itself a corporate form of virtue. it expresses and in turn reinforces the faith, hope, and love which are themselves the key Christian virtues. From this activity there flow all kinds of other things in terms of Christian life and witness. But worship is central, basic, and in the best sense habit-forming.1

1.  N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters [Harper One: New York, NY; 2010] pp. 224-225 

Friday, November 2, 2012

Summing up

The normal Protestant objection to virtue, as we've seen, is that it's just hypocrisy, "putting it on" when you don't yet fully mean it. The standard answer is that this is the only way to acquire the deep-rooted characteristics of faith, hope, love, and all the rest. If we wait to start practicing these things until we "mean them" from the bottom of our hearts, we will wait a long time and probably mess up a lot of lives, including our own, in the process. But now we face the opposite problem: the charge that liturgy and other aspects of formal worship have become "just a habit," implying that because worship is a habit you don't really mean it. At one level, the two charges cancel one another out. If you're just putting it on, it isn't a habit; if it's a habit, you're not just putting it on! But there's a serious point underneath this second problem. 
Virtue, whether individual or corporate, is never something that can be taken for granted. Once the habit is formed, by many conscious choices and decisions, it has to be maintained in good running order. Here is the difference between "authenticity" and "spontaneity." Spontaneity objects to all habits: things ought just to happen! Authenticity, on the other hand, doesn't mind habits, so long as they don't become hollow. Fair enough. It would be good, frankly, to think that many of today's Christians were anywhere near the danger of forming habits of worship so strong that they could become "just a habit." That is perhaps a problem that is dying out. But if and when the danger is present, the warning is justified.  
When human beings worship God the creator, articulating their praise and adoration because of who he is and what he's done, they are, whether or not they realize it, summing up the praises and adoration of the whole creation.1

1.  N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters [Harper One: New York, NY; 2010] p. 224

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Learning the habits of a royal priesthood

It's interesting to study the scriptural account of the early church at worship in the Acts of the Apostles, which describes the first Christians drawing on the Psalms and other scriptures to celebrate God's love and power and to be strengthened and sustained in mission.  
...In particular, of course, a church that is learning the habits of the royal priesthood will celebrate the sacraments -- those occasions when the life of heaven intersects mysteriously with the life of earth, not so that earth can control or manipulate heaven (that would be magic, not faith) but so that the story of heaven may become concrete, physical reality within the life of earth, catching up human beings within a world where all sorts of things make sense that don't otherwise, and all sorts of other things that might have appeared to make sense do so no longer.  
All of this life of worship is something to be learned. Communities can grow into liturgy and sacraments, and can take delight in discovering that these things can become, as it were, habits of the community's heart as well as of the individual's. Shared worship is part of what it means when we compare Christianity to team sport. It is together that we are God's people, not as isolated individuals. 
That being-togetherness does not, of course, mean uniformity. What counts is precisely the coming together of people who are quite unlike one another in everything except their commitment to the God we know in scripture and ultimately in Jesus.1

1.  N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters [Harper One: New York, NY; 2010] p. 223

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Good Christian Liturgy

Good Christian liturgy is friendship in action, love taking thought, the covenant relationship between God and his people not simply discovered and celebrated like the sudden meeting of friends, exciting and worthwhile though that is, but thought through and relished, planned and prepared -- an ultimatley better way for the relationship to grow and at the same time a way of demonstrating what the relationship is all about. 
...Good liturgy is also eager to discover better and better ways of singing and praying Psalms together, so that they come to be "second nature" within the memory, imagination, and spirituality of all the worshipping faithful, not just of a few musically minded leaders.1

1.  N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters [Harper One: New York, NY; 2010] pp. 222-223 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Learning to be a gardener

N.T. Wright comments on the fruit of the Spirit:
The "fruit of the Spirit" does not grow automatically. The nine varieties of fruit do not suddenly appear just because someone has believed in Jesus, has prayed for God's Spirit, and has then sat back and waited for "fruit" to arrive. Oh, there may well be strong and sudden initial signs that fruit is on the way. Many new Christians, particularly when a sudden conversion has meant a dramatic turning away from a lifestyle full of the "works of the flesh," report their own astonishment at the desire that springs up within them to love, to forgive, to be gentle, to be pure. Where, they ask, has all this come from? I didn't used to be like this. That is a wonderful thing a sure sign of the Spirit' working. 
But this doesn't mean it's all downhill from there. These are the blossoms; to get the fruit you have to learn to be a gardener. You have to discover how to tend and prune, how to irrigate the field, how to keep the birds and squirrels away. You have to watch for blight and mold, cut away ivy and other parasites that suck the life out of the tree, and make sure they young trunk can stand firm in strong winds. Only then will the fruit appear. 
And, in case anyone should think I am imposing an alien note on Paul's cheerful list of these wonderful characteristics... we note the final characteristic in the list: self-control. If the "fruit" were automatic, why would self-control be needed? Answer: it isn't, so it is: it isn't automatic, so it is needed. All the varieties of fruit Paul mentions here are comparatively easy to counterfeit, especially in young, healthy, happy people -- except for self-control. If that isn't there, it's always worth asking whether the appearance of the other sorts of fruit is just that, an appearance, rather than a real sign of the spirit's work.1 

1.  N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters [Harper One: New York, NY; 2010] pp. 195-196