Childhood memories are difficult to pin down, but one that still remains vivid was my early love of dinosaurs. Of course a childhood fascination with dinosaurs is not unusual, but the distinct image of “the dinosaur”- depicted universally in dinosaur-themed paraphernalia through the 80s- is difficult to explain to those born after 1991. Long before Jurassic Park introduced realism to cinematic dinosaurs and well before revised scientific images added feathers and contours to make them distinctly animals, depictions of the ancient beasts vivified their Greek name. They were terrible lizards. Ravenous, dimwitted, cold-blooded, and above all primitive, “the dinosaur” existed as a nothing less than a primordial monster. Between the lethargic herbivores and unceasingly ravenous carnivores, there was nothing about the creatures that wasn’t rampant, unconstrained , and dominating. Less some animal that lived a long time ago, more a demon from a chaotic age that might not even exist in our epoch of reason without contaminating it with its own primordial nature.
One image in particular persists in my mind as an icon of what “the dinosaur” once was in the popular imagination. It is a painting of a late-Jurassic battle between an allosaurus and a brontosaurus. Depicted in a children’s book of dinosaurs, the image was nonetheless more gruesome than anything I had encountered as a young child. Even now, looking at the image as an adult, it is brutal. As the allosaur talons cut into sauropod’s flesh, streams of blood trickle down to the swamp and the gentle giant sways in agonizing throws. There even seems to be a sadistic joy in the countenance of the carnivore.
The caption originally included beneath the picture only added to the scene’s poignancy. Stuck in quicksand, the sauropod had been overtaken by an allosaur, a predator it could have otherwise fended off with ease. Though unable to escape its doom, in death the brontosaurus had collapsed and crushed its assailant. Thus, the futility of the scenario was further underlined. The agonizingly cruel death of the brontosaurus was mirrored seconds later by the ironically cruel death of the allosaurus. There was nothing that justified the fate, it existed as a product of the futile prehistoric world.
I have found myself reflecting more and more on such futility, not the least when contemplating our country’s current political situation. Sure enough, there might be much in the way of a comparison between the image of two fighting prehistoric beasts and the prospect of a Hillary vs Trump race this Fall. Perhaps, a more apt analogy yet might be the opportunistic and carnivorous Trump sinking his teeth into the immobilized and bloated body of a Republican establishment (probably only to be later crushed under that establishment’s decaying husk). But still, a more disturbing comparison is on my mind.
At this point in 2016, a significant amount of commentary has comprised of “experts” castigating this election’s descent into coarseness and violence as “unprecedented”. More historically-minded pundits have been quick to point out that this might be better characterized as a throwback to a type of politics historically common in 19th century, but long since out fashion. While rare in our modern advanced age, the narrative goes, 2016 is a temporary lapse into a violent populist mode, likely never to be repeated again. But even as I am assured that our politics will momentarily return to their mundane pattern of stale choices and consistent growth, I am troubled once more by a vision of “the dinosaur”.
There was one way that the antediluvian depictions of “the dinosaur” were accurate. There was a certain insight in the visions of unfeeling titans battling in the shadows of dimly-lit volcanoes. For all their manifest inaccuracies, the old pictures captured a truth neatly hidden away in our modern understanding of living creatures, ancient or otherwise. The truth is nothing less than the fact that animals, in their natural element, embody all the cruelty and callousness of the universe that spawned them.
It is easy to forget that when most of our interactions with animals are filtered through the lens of domestication, science, or art. The subtle censorship of the textbook encourages us to think of animals as dissected specimens, just as our experiences with domesticated companions encourages the view that they are anthropomorphic furry humans. But these fictions are paper thin, made obvious in any encounter with a wild animal. The cruelty of animals is one of the truest things about them because their violence is a product of the Darwinian forces that shape every moment of their natural lives.
Nature has a demonic element in its core, and it is a nature that humans share, no matter how our culture tells us otherwise. In modern times perhaps Nietzsche did the most to remind us of this base reality. But it was a fact well known to the ancient Greeks. Even the medieval craftsmen were aware of this chaotic nature in man and beast, and carried it forth in their depictions of animals and wildmen. Could the 20th century popularizers of dinosaurs have unwittingly rediscovered this oft-forgotten truth?
This brings me back to our present political reality. Although I am not one prone to alarm, there is indeed a reason to be unsettled by auspices hinted at in the rise of Trump, Putin, and ISIS. Regardless of what we might be tempted to think, these actors are not historical anomalies, the persistence of our civilization is. And while it might be true that our present crop of strongmen are passing,
so too is the long illusion of continuous progress and ever-increasing economic growth that sustained the previous order. We are in a dying era and everyone, left, right, and center feels the foundations shifting beneath their feet.
It is fashionable to talk of the advancement of human civilization and the spirit of the age. But wise philosophers have long known that Olympian edifices are built upon the bones of the chaotic giants. In fact, the truly wise have known that the giants are not dead, but merely sleeping. When we hear the rumbling of their disquieted slumber, we might be reminded that on any given day the demons of the ancient world may rise in rage against our modern illusions. Because, whatever part of our own lives are folly, their hunger for dominance is real.
I struggle with expressing this sentiment, mostly because I am aware how unoriginal it is. As such, I hope to close my speculation with words from the poet W.B. Yeats, who said it best of all.
I recently recorded three of my favorite essays by G.K. Chesterton.
First “A Piece of Chalk”, a reflection on the little ironies in creation.
Second, “On Man:Heir of All Ages”, Gilbert’s perspective on the inheritance of history and religion.
Lastly, “The Medical Mistake” where Chesterton famously answers the question”What’s wrong with the world?”
I run a small book discussion group through my local parish. This year, in coordination with the Pope’s own advice, we are tackling Dante’s Divine Comedy. In Fall we finished Inferno. This Lent we read Purigorio, then Paradiso after Easter.
For a while I have considered blogging about this project. Certainly re-reading the Comedia has changed my perspective on theology and the history of Catholic thought.
However, probably the single greatest insight I have gotten from re-reading Dante is just how much community means when experiencing a work of fiction. I first read and discussed the Inferno as part of a general-ed literature class in college. The impression it made on me would be hard to understate. With both Professor and students eager to dismiss the work as a grand Florentine revenge fantasy, the poem was quickly used to bolster my already unflattering view of the Medieval mind.
Needless to say, revisiting Dante’s hell with a group of orthodox Catholics is very different. The theology built into every layer of the burning perdition is too sophisticated for any modern Catholic to dismiss. The sins that bring the souls to their eternal torment are a little too close for any modern Christian’s comfort. The experience is rich, chilling, but not easily explained in words
There are certain works of art that might only be authentically experienced from inside a certain community. I remember thinking this again when seeing the new Star Wars movie on opening night. Not being a fan myself, I could understand something key about the film just by being in the audience. It wasn’t just a matter of absorbing the excitement, I could -in fact- understand a very different message being communicated. To the audience there, The Force Awakens was a fresh story of redemption even if the individual plot points were, well totally predictable. It was a story about their community, and ,more importantly about what it meant to truly like Star Wars. You had to be among them to really understand that.
Generalizing, it might be worth trying to read a book popular with an antagonistic community this way. I can’t be the first Christian who has wondered what it must be like to read The God Delusion with a group of atheists. I read the book a while back and found it to be preachy, tiresome and self-righteous, but I know people who have read it lovingly over twenty times. Perhaps the true appeal of Dawkin’s labored tirade could be better understood through seeing it read and discussed inside an atheist book group. Might it be less an explanation of scientific fact than a story of community’s exodus, liberation, and rebirth? This would indeed be a greater story.
Last month, I came across a link for Doxacon, a convention for Orthodox and Catholic speculative fiction enthusiasts that is held yearly on both the west and east coasts. The event looks pretty neat, especially if you have a thing for priests in cassocks paired with Jedi Knights and lightsabers.
I certainly regret having missed the first two. Luckily enough the full audio of the event is now online. The podcasts are well worth a listen, especially for people interested in speculative fiction and classic Christian philosophy. Some gems that shouldn’t be missed:
- Chesterton, Lewis & Card – Approach to Worldbuilding – Leah Libresco gives another outstanding lecture
on interacting with a world that is more uncertain and mysterious than we might initially have anticipated. It reminds me a little bit of my own lecture on the cult of confidence, that is if my own lecture had been more interesting and included references to Narnia.
- You Got Your Christianity in My Science Fiction! – John C. Wright discusses incorporating religious themes into fiction. The author makes some interesting points about the assumptions that go into making narratives that work with readers and still carry a larger message.
- The Golden Path: Frank Herbert’s Dune as Religious Fantasy – This talk was an intricate look into the spirituality of the Dune series as well as the religious motivation of its author: Frank Herbert. Dune was my favorite sci-fi book back in high school and it’s nice to hear a new take on the series.
Those interested in the Seattle event might also want to check out the lecture discussing the relationship between communities and role-playing games given at the west coast event. I am not sure that I agree with the analogy between a role-playing game and the sixth-day of creation, but it’s an entertaining comparison.
I certainly will be at the 2016 Doxacon to blog if my schedule allows. Until then, it does look like there is more than enough content to chew on.
A reconceptualization of the classic distributist logo:
Perhaps more realistic than the original
Blogging Orthodoxy continues with :
Chapter 8: The Romance of Orthodoxy
I consider The Romance of Orthodoxy to be the weakest chapter of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. At first glance there doesn’t appear to be anything that we haven’t heard in the previous chapters. To this point Chesterton has already talked at length about how a mystical love of the universe is needed to value life and how mystical skepticism is needed to reform it. He has reviewed in detail the dangers of trying to conceive of the world as purely rational and visited the mistakes humanism has made when attempting to achieve reform without understanding the concept of the ideal. With all of this already said, one might wonder why Chesterton spends his eighth chapter rehashing many of these same points. But although The Romance of Orthodoxy may seem entirely redundant, I think Gilbert does have a point. However laboriously, by the end of the eighth Chapter, Chesterton has built towards a singular question, perhaps the question for anyone reading a book about Catholicism and not Catholic themselves: Despite the fact that there may be some, possibly incidental, truths in the Faith, why actually be Catholic?
Though Chesterton answers this question mainly in his last chapter, it was this question that dominated our reading group’s discussion on The Romance of Orthodoxy. And for good reason. Our patron was certainly speaking for everyone when he pointed out that this question was the question that our modern age has for the Catholic Church. Not Why do You believe in God? not Did Jesus really rise from the dead? not even Why are you Christian? but Why be Catholic? It’s a question that Catholics hear all the time. And no one ever has a really good answer.
I admit, it is a hard question because the question is inseparable from historical record. God and Jesus may be eternal and unsullied, but the Church is very much a being of history and as most people are aware, it has had quite a long one. Moreover, unlike Muslims, Atheists, and Buddhists, Catholics for, the most part, are singularly conscious of their Church’s historical misdeeds. I’ve noticed that, despite believing in the Church’s mission, Catholics tend to avoid asserting that their Church has historically bore witness to the gospel of Jesus. And, given this record, it’s probably no surprise that secular people can’t take the concept seriously either.
Even after coming to believe in God, I found the concept of the Catholic Church being a force for any kind of good in history to be utterly ridiculous. Of course I knew enough history to discount many of the common atheists myths surrounding Catholicism spun by those like Christopher Hitchens and it was not necessary to dispel common exaggerations about the relative violence of the Church to other factions in history. But nonetheless, beyond statistical nitpicking, there was human reality of the Church’s terrible role in history that had to be confronted. It may be true that the Spanish Inquisition killed only around 3000 people, but, for an institution that claims every human is the image of God, the inquisition was an atrocity more revolting than the 20 million souls trod under by Genghis Khan. And so the central question remained.
A common, and not entirely inadequate, response is that the Church itself is fallen and flawed like all other human institutions. I have to say, this perspective, while truthful, didn’t satisfy me initially. If the Church was truly the cornerstone of Christ’s teaching on earth then it must be much more than one fallen entity among many. If the history of human existence is one long line of tarnished treasures, why should one particular piece be worthy of adoration?
I began to see a better explanation when reading The Screwtape Letters where the demonic Screwtape counsels his understudy on how the Church on earth can stand in contrast to the divine Church as seen from time immemorial.
One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like ‘the body of Christ’ and the actual faces in the next pew.
Though C.S. Lewis’ target with this passage was pettiness among parishioners and not grand historical crimes, his thoughts formed in me the first inkling of a concept I later came to accept. There might be something in the Church beyond what is superficially seen in the institution. The true Church might be less like a tarnished golden chalice and more like a small golden thread, that while almost invisible against the backdrop of the soil that covers it, still leads onward towards its luminous source. And as I looked at the Church in history, there did seem to be just such a thread running through it. The Catholics referred to it as The Lives of the Saints.
Often times the word Hagiography is used loosely to condemn whitewashed and arduously positive biographies. But I found nothing arduous or whitewashed about the lives of the Saints. The Saints were flawed individuals but in their moments of grace they became something far greater than themselves and the times in which they lived. The saints were real. More real than other historical figures and more real even than the figures that occupy our contemporary world. Most people, from politicians and celebrities to ordinary grocers and policeman, are carried along with the flow of history, working from within their time and place to do the best they can. But the Saint stands still, the ebb and flow of their time and culture folding around their lives like the waters of a stream against a stationary rock. In communion, the Saints stand apart from history like a series golden links. The institutional Church, as we see it today, acts simply as a container for this more glorious witness. It keeps the doctrines, the sacraments, and the records of the Saint’s coming. But in the end, it is simply an observer, in waiting, and in anticipation of something greater than itself.
At this point I have probably lost my secular audience and I’m sure someone is going to accuse me of looking at Catholic history with rose-tinted glasses. Couldn’t one take the most shinning examples of any institution and hold them aloft? How would this then justify the Catholic Church above other institutions? Again, without answering these objections directly, I would like offer a caveat. From my own experience, it is actually rare for institutions to justify themselves by pointing to a past communion of truly good people. Much more common is to look back at the powerful and argue that their evil actions weren’t really evil, or that their evil actions were necessary do to the particular situations of the age. But the Saints have no reason to be recognized but for their goodness. Some are meek and others powerful, but their common communion is only virtue. Here, there is something truly unique: a link to the past that is more divine and accessible than any other past heroism can provide. Few have the intelligence to be an Einstein, the power to be Caesar, or the wealth to be a Rockafeller, but the goodness of a Catherine of Sienna or a Saint Francis of Assisi is available to every person at every moment of their lives. We have but to reach forward and accept it.
It seems the modern world is sorely in need of just this conception of Saintly continuity. We all have an innate desire to look back and see an unbroken chain of idealism leading from the past on into the future, and of course we fasten upon the great leaders and thinkers of our history to serve this purpose. Right-wingers have their obsession with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, while the left has their devotion to Margaret Sanger and Harvey Milk. But modern history is none too slow at finding the flaws in any of the great idols of our past. Behind every Jefferson there is slavery, behind every Sanger there is Eugenics. The great leaders and thinkers of the past are all compromised just as every empire that is old is also brutal. So modern man is left, looking back at a history of moral ambiguity, disconnected from any concept that his ancestors had anything to teach him.
I believe it is this very disconnect that enables the progressive view of history to become so popular. With a past of unmitigated misery and evil, we may want to believe in a present and future that will inevitably be better, not just in material comforts, but in human goodness. But this progressive vision does nothing but impede our ability to live as good people in our daily lives. With the idea of goodness inevitably expanding, we forget the very important reality that, in any age, being virtuous is difficult. To be good, truly good, is a task so herculean as to be almost impossible, and we discount this fact at our own moral peril.
I must now return to the question posed at the onset of the discussion: Why Be Catholic? For myself, it is because I see the Church as a historic moral teacher, not through the institution, but through the narrow paths walked by the saints in obscurity. The Catholic Church has committed many crimes, but this does not set it aside from any other historical institution. Every cause and great leader is flawed from Pericles and the Athenian Democracy to George Washington and our current Republic. I get the sense that when most people look back on their ancestor’s history they are in fact looking for some progressive thread through which to learn moral lessons. And here the institutional Catholic Church has played a prophetic role. It has discovered just such a thread in the live of the Saints. And although it is flawed as an institution, the Church may act as a sign post for the greatest moral teachers the world has ever known.
At the close of this article, I am reminded of an oft-repeated Catholic adage-“there is only one true tragedy in life and that is to not be Saint”. There is certainly truth in that statement, but if it is entirely accurate then the world is quite a tragic place. Of course, we have all known great individuals living selfless lives of grace, but they are quite rare. For the most part we plod along, not willing to fight against the current of our modern age and personal desires. The path of true righteousness is narrow. It is not a golden carpet that will roll out easily in front of us. We are not good by nature and, as such, teachers are needed. So Christians must tirelessly search for the good people in the narrow and dirty places of the world looking for the living Saints that can continue to guide us. As in all ages past, we will stumble and struggle to find this thread of true human compassion, but as difficult as the task may be it is absolutely necessary. For if we desire to be bring any true goodness, the loss of that golden thread of Sainthood may be the world’s only true tragedy.