C.S. Lewis on the purpose of collective action

From C.S. Lewis’ lecture “Membership,” as it appears in The Weight of Glory:

The secular community, since it exists for a natural good and not for our supernatural, has no higher end than to facilitate and safeguard the family, and friendship, and solitude. To be happy at home, said Johnson, is the end of all human endeavour. As long as we are thinking only of natural values we must say that the sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal, or two friends talking over a pint of beer, or a man alone reading a book that interests him; and that all economies, politics, laws, armies, and institutions, save insofar as they prolong and multiply such scenes, are a mere ploughing the sand and sowing the ocean, a meaningless vanity and vexation of spirit. Collective activities are, of course, necessary, but this is the end to which they are necessary. Great sacrifices of this private happiness by those who have it may be necessary in order that it may be more widely distributed. All may have to be a little hungry in order that none may starve. But do not let us mistake necessary evils for good. The mistake is easily made. Fruit has to be tinned if it is to be transported and has to lose thereby some of its good qualities. But one meets people who have learned actually to prefer the tinned fruit to the fresh. A sick society must think much about politics as a sick man must think much about his digestion; to ignore the subject may be fatal cowardice for the one as for the other. But if either comes to regard it as the natural food of the mind–if either forgets that we think of such things only in order to be able to think of something else–then what was undertaken for the sake of health has become itself a new and deadly disease. (161-162)

One of the key distinctions that Lewis makes in the lecture is that to be a member originally meant being like an organ in a body, not exactly like all of the other members. Modern mass societies and groups operate in a very different way.

Just your usual C.S. Lewis

The Weight of GloryThe Weight of Glory by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some really great talks given throughout Lewis’ career, most during World War II. The title sermon is justly famous, and I thought “Membership” was outstanding as well. As always, it seems, Lewis expressed his arguments on complex topics clearly and simply.

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Accessible Anglicans

In a 2014 post “The Invisible Anglicanism of CS Lewis,” Jake Meador notes something that I have noticed before:

Any student of recent Christian history will, of course, be unsurprised to find an Anglican doing marvelous work while writing as a broadly orthodox Christian. Lewis is simply one of many to do so. Consider his contemporary (and sometimes rival) TS Eliot, or later 20th century preachers like John Stott and JI Packer. Most recently, N.T. Wright has risen to prominence on the back of both impressive scholarly works and accessible popular writings. ([Alan] Jacobs himself likely deserves a mention here as well for his essays and writings on reading and technology, amongst many other topics.) Wes Hill, though very young, seems another promising example of this trend based on his fine work Washed and Waiting.

Catholic readers seeking to understand Lewis’s depth and orientation toward the world need not chase down fanciful (and, when one actually thinks about it, rather insulting) theories of “Ulsterior” motives that kept Lewis from simply crossing the Tiber like all good Christian humanists apparently should. They simply need to understand that he was an Anglican and that Anglicans seem to have a particular talent for distilling complex Christian truth into clear, accessible language that anyone can understand. What Lewis was doing in books like Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain is simply another species of what Stott did in The Cross of Christ or what Wright did in books like Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope.

Exploring modern thinkers and ideas

European Intellectual History from Rousseau to NietzscheEuropean Intellectual History from Rousseau to Nietzsche by Frank M. Turner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A nice, clear overview of major European thinkers and intellectual trends during this time, in less than 300 pages. It’s a reproduction of Turner’s lectures from his Yale course, put together after his death. One of the best features is how well the lectures show the connections and influences between different thinkers, ideas, and Western society from about 1750-1900. So, for example, the lecture on Richard Wagner illustrates how many of these trends came together in the composer’s life.

The lecture “Race and Anti-Semitism” included a wise reminder. Turner notes that racial thought had connections with many of the leading intellectual trends of the 1800s, such as “opposition to the unbridled advance of capitalism,” imperialism, nationalism, and “the new sciences of anthropology, philology, evolution, eugenics, and public health. Racial thinking rose to the crest of this apparently and so-called progressionist wave. The forms of mass murder and mass degradation in Europe and within the various colonial empires brought about by such thinking — murder and degradation carried out for allegedly high principle and with sincere, educated conviction — should encourage all of us to show more scepticism toward embracing any set of ideas simply because they are called new, advanced, scientific, or progressive” (191).

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Two defenses of the Benedict Option

Both Alan Jacobs and Carl Trueman recently sought to address some of the concerns of the critics of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option.

Trueman links to Dreher’s FAQ on the Benedict Option, which seems to be a helpful introduction. I am familiar with Dreher’s idea, but I hope to read through these ideas to get a fuller understanding.

Brian Mattson wrote a perceptive criticism of the Benedict Option last year, and Dreher gave a brief response. I think that Trueman’s post above is partly directed at criticisms like Mattson’s.

Leon Wieseltier on the Holocaust and evil

In 1996, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum hosted “an evening of dialogue to examine the issues raised by Daniel Goldhagen’s deliberately provocative book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, in which the author seeks to challenge the canons of Holocaust scholarship and to directly confront its acknowledged masters.” This introduction and some of the lectures can be found here.

I found Leon Wieseltier’s reflections to be arresting. Below are the first two paragraphs and the final paragraph of Wieseltier’s talk:

I am not a professional historian of the Holocaust. From my distance, I am not sure that it is humanly possible any longer to master the subject; or humanely possible. Certainly, I cannot master it, and I am not referring only to its details. I admire those who study it with equanimity, whose historical attitude has not been broken by this historical turpitude; detachment in the face of such a subject is a genuine accomplishment of human inwardness. But for me the Holocaust is fire and ice. The more I live with the events of 1939-1945, the less I understand them. I need an explanation, and all I find are explanations. I have concluded that the search for an explanation is futile. There are only explanations, and alone or together they do not retire the mystery.

I do not use the word “mystery” lightly; it is, generally, a cheap word, a spiritualization of lazy minds. In one sense, of course, what happened between 1939 and 1945 is clear: a people called the Jews was almost destroyed by a people called the Germans, with the assistance of other peoples whose names are known to you all. And so, as we like to say, we have clarity. But when we have clarity, what is it, really, that we have? I would suggest that the clarity that we possess about the Holocaust only exposes the limits of clarity, its contentlessness. It is possible to have perfect clarity on a perfect mystery….

Goldhagen has written a dark book; but I wonder whether reality is not even darker than he thinks. From the Holocaust I take away a terrifying lesson about the resourcefulness of evil. Evil advances thoughtfully and thoughtlessly; meaningfully and meaninglessly; alone and in company; by design and by circumstance; sober and drunk; with compunction and without. It kindles to national boundaries, but it will not be confined by national characters. It is found and it is taught. It is monocausal and multicausal. It will not be pinned down long, in theory or in practice. It will not be exhausted by any of its expressions. It is itself evidence of that aspect of human life from which it has most to fear, which is the aspect of universalism.

The Anglican Non-Jurors

Last spring, Philip Jenkins wrote about the Non-Jurors, who reacted against the replacement of James II with William and Mary. From his first post:

High Churchmen were aghast at the outcome of the Glorious Revolution, and the new constitutional settlement. In their eyes, when the church’s new leaders consecrated the change, they had abandoned God’s truth in the name of political expediency. Worse, the new order was demanding that all clergy and office holders take oaths to the new king. Many clergy, including some of the church’s greatest spiritual and intellectual beacons, found that they simply could not accept. They refused to swear those oaths, and by dint of that, became non-swearers, “Non-Jurors.” They began a domestic schism from the established church, and ordained their own succession of bishops.

That is the political background, but the consequences were lasting. The Non-Juror movement continued into the early nineteenth century, and it developed a potent High Church ideology. I do not mean that in the Victorian or Oxford Movement sense of quasi-Catholic liturgy, “bells and smells.” (Although some Oxford Movement thinkers, notably Newman, did look back fondly on the Non-Juror inheritance). Rather, the Non-Jurors struggled to create a kind of Christian practice that was fully in tune with the Bible and the Fathers, with “Primitive Christianity,” and which did not just depend on the good will of a state or king. They agonized over issues of ecclesiology, and at the same time sought new ways of leading a pure Christian life. Taking sacramental life very seriously, they were devoted to the ideal of small-c catholic Christianity. At so many points, they have much in common with their very influential near-contemporaries, the German Pietists.

One of the Non-Jurors, Thomas Ken, wrote the Doxology (“Praise God from whom all blessings flow…”).

The most surprising element of the story is described in Jenkins’ second post: “around 1716, the English Non-Jurors approached the Eastern patriarchs to be acknowledged as a church under their jurisdiction, whether that of the Patriarch of Alexandria or Jerusalem. Although resident on English soil, they would nevertheless obey these distant masters, who represented authentic ancient Christianity.”

Jenkins quotes from Reverend H.W. Langford’s 1965 paper on the subject:

The Non-Juror bishops showed in their correspondence a strong reluctance to ‘go behind’ the English Reformation Settlement, and were obviously very ill at ease in dealing with Orthodox belief on such subjects as transubstantiation and invocation of saints. With regard to the nature of the worship due to Our Lady, the patriarchs replied with some sympathy but with a possible touch of ridicule. “It is not to be wondered at for being born and bred in the principles of the Luthero-Calvinists, and possessed with their prejudices, they tenaciously adhere to them like ivy to a tree.”

As you can surmise from the current ecclesiastical arrangements, things didn’t work out.


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