Wednesday, October 30, 2013

G.K. Chesterton: Vendor of Words

When one begins to read the works of G.K. Chesterton, the first impression is that the man has a way with words. If anyone claims any other first impression, it might very well signify that the person has not yet learned to read, for this much, at least, is obvious even to those who fervently disagree with him—who might claim that his competency masks his ignorance. He was the master, so it is said, of the epigram. He possessed the uncanny ability to take almost any phrase, turn it on its head, and make it dance; to take any idea, no matter how prosaic, and turn it to poetry. If a debate over some great issue ever turned into nothing more than a battle of clever phrase-turning (which, in fact, seems to be the case much of the time), there is little doubt that Chesterton would come out looking very large (pun very much intended, for Chesterton was a famously massive individual, both in terms of girth and in literary accomplishment), while making his opponent, or his opponent's ideas, seem very, very small.

While there is certainly something admirable about Chesterton's way with words, a certain clarification must be made: There is a very real difference between an accomplishment with words and an accomplishment of ideas, just as there is a difference between the concrete and the abstract. If there was no such distinction, I might be just as influenced in my ideas by Shakespeare, Shaw or Wilde as I am by Chesterton. But as much as Chesterton's ability to string together a fanciful sentence makes his words eminently readable, it is the heart of his ideology that make his words worth reading in the first place. Words may have some value on their own, but no words are more lasting than those that convey something true. This is why no mere nursery rhyme will ever have the lasting value of the Psalms, just as no romantic novel will ever compare to the Song of Solomon.

There are far more than words in many of Chesterton's works (I cannot say for certain that this holds true universally, as I'm not certain that even Chesterton has read his complete works; and the prolific nature of his writing certainly led to the occasional worthless essay or droning novel, worth little more than the paper on which it was printed). Hidden beneath the clever sentences and the endless epigrams is something missing from most eminent writers: there are often very real (and very consistent, which is no small achievement) ideas. Very important ideas.

There is nothing superficial, for example, about the steady progression of logical and reasonable leaps that make up Chesterton's seminal apologetic work, The Everlasting Man, which uses anthropology and history to show the futility of humanism. There is far more within the pages of Orthodoxy than clever sentences. 

Even much of his fiction is founded very much on truth, for one of the underpinnings of Chesterton's entire philosophy was that there was often more truth found in myths and fantasies than in “proper” history, for in fantasy the truth of the soul is revealed, while a book of history only says anything about a person's ability to perform some research. There is something truly human in fiction—even the most fantastic fiction—that is necessarily absent from even the most accomplished work of history. I, for one, have probably found far more value and inspiration in Chesterton's little-remembered novel The Ball and the Cross than from any work of theology. 

The Ball and the Cross is, in part, a work of pure fantasy, opening with a fanciful scene of a futuristic flying machine, driven by a demon, soaring over the streets of London and ends with the dramatic rescue of an angelic being from an insane asylum. There is never a sense that the events of the story are anything but an allegory, and yet, as is the hallmark of any good allegory, one cannot help but believe every word. Between these fantastic bookends is the story of two men, a devout Christian and a devout atheist, whose attempts to kill one another over their ideological differences leads to a tremendous friendship and the realization that the true enemy is a world that no longer cares; a message that has never stopped resonating. It is as searing an indictment against the apathy of our present world as against that of 19th century London.

Not to be ignored are Chesterton's Father Brown stories and perhaps his most well known novel, The Man Who Was Thursday. The larger and more lasting themes of these works may be less overt, but they are there, certainly, hiding just beneath the wit and cleverness of the words.

It is fair to wonder why I should mention so much about Chesterton’s works and so little about his life or personality. When I wrote previously about Malcolm Muggeridge I wrote almost exclusively about his story and what it meant to his theology. The reason is simple: When I consider Muggeridge, it is as a man inseparable from his life; his theology was a direct result of the events that shaped them. With Chesterton, there is certainly a life there—and an interesting one—but when I think of Chesterton I do not think of his life; I think of his words.

Still, there are many similarities between Muggeridge and Chesterton, which others have described at length. Both were British. Neither was raised in a particularly religious home, both, after accepting the truths of Christianity, began as Protestants and later converted to Catholicism. Both were inveterate journalists, making their living as "Vendors of Words." Chesterton died before he had reason to know anything of Muggeridge though it is fair to say that Muggeridge was, at least in part, influenced by Chesterton (though his reviews of Chesterton’s works are often quite mixed). “The only time I ever saw him in the flesh,” Muggeridge wrote, “he was seated outside The Ship Hotel at Brighton shortly before he died. His canvas chair looked preposterously small, as did a yellow-covered thriller he was reading. It was a windy day, and I half-expected him to be carried away. Though so huge, he seemed to have no substance: more a balloon than an elephant.”

Muggeridge would have been the first to note that the differences between he and Chesterton were stark (though, somehow, without being contradictory): Muggeridge was, even at his wittiest moments, almost endlessly solemn, while Chesterton could make light of even the most serious of issues (as is evident in his book Eugenics and Other Evils). Muggeridge excelled in taking the things that humanity finds great—governments, pleasures, wealth—and made them appear very small and worthless, for he knew that all earthly kingdoms pales in comparison to the Kingdom of God, while Chesterton considered things that were seemingly small and insignificant and made them appear very big and important. 

The most perfect example of this tendency—which permeates almost all of his writings—is found in the collection of essays known, appropriately, as Tremendous Trifles. Chesterton explores all sorts of seemingly mundane things and shows his readers that they are really very important, for in them one can discover great truths, both about men and about God.

On trying to purchase a piece of brown paper on which to draw, he writes: “I then tried to explain the rather delicate logical shade, that I not only liked brown paper, but liked the quality of brownness in paper, just as I liked the quality of brownness in October woods, or in beer, or in the peat-streams of the north. Brown paper represents the primal twilight of the first toil of creation, and with a bright-colored chalk or two you can pick out points of fire in it, sparks of gold, and blood-red, and sea-green, like the first fierce stars that sprang out of divine darkness.”

On the inviting prospect of drawing on his ceiling while lying in bed, he writes: “Nowhere did I find a really clear place for sketching until this occasion when I prolonged beyond the proper limit the process of lying on my back in bed. Then the light of that white heaven broke upon my vision, that breadth of mere white which is indeed almost the definition of Paradise, since it means purity and also means freedom. But alas! Like all heavens, now that it is seen it is found to be unattainable; it looks more austere and more distant than the blue sky outside the window. For my proposal to paint on it with the bristly end of a broom has been discouraged—never mind by whom; by a person debarred from all political rights—and even my minor proposal to put the other end of the broom into the kitchen fire and turn it into charcoal has not been conceded... I am sure that it was only because Michelangelo was engaged in the ancient and honourable occupation of lying in bed that he ever realised how the roof of the Sistene Chapel might be made into an awful imitation of a divine drama that could only be acted in the heavens.”

This was all meant, obviously, in good humor—for Chesterton was tremendous at making light of things while at the same time ensuring that the world is loved and seen as the brilliant place it is. His purpose, always, was to remind his readers that: “The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.” This is where Chesterton’s theology begins and ends: with hope and happiness and the knowledge that this place, as the creation of God, does not merely offer the occasional miracle, but is, in itself, one endless miracle that goes, far too often, overlooked. That is the truth that he was endlessly revealing through his words.

The same joy and wonder he found in the world around him, Chesterton found ten-fold in the person of Christ. Chesterton realized that Christianity is not, as so many have said, a religion of woe or mourning. It is not a religion that makes one dwell on their sins or compels them to reject all earthly pleasures. “Joy,” he begins the closing passage of Orthodoxy, “which is the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomats are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men who they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was mirth.”   

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Malcolm Muggeridge: Apostle of Experience

If I am going to take some time to describe some of God’s Spies, it seems only fitting that I should begin, not just with the man who inspired me to do so, but with a man who served, not only as one of God’s spies on earth, but as a very real spy in very human terms, having been involved, during World War II, in espionage while serving with MI6, the British Secret Service.

In the case of Malcolm Muggeridge, there is something refreshingly concrete to the analogy.

Anyone familiar with Muggeridge’s faith or politics later in life—that is, after he became famous—is surely surprised to discover that he who was destined to provide a bold voice to the cause of conservative morality; who used the pulpit of the media to rail against the futile efforts of men, was raised into an environment of pure, unrepentant socialism. Malcolm’ father, Henry, was one of the founders of London’s Fabian Society—a group of wealthy Londoners who were sympathetic to communistic ideals—and a Member of Parliament for the Labour Party (when that still meant something).

It is worth noting, of course, that this was a time before the horrors of these utopian dreams, put into practice, was really known. There may have been debate over whether the tenets of communism were really ideal or not, but the concept had not yet been linked to the great human evils that became inevitable under such a system; even a critic of communism would have found it difficult to believe that the system, devoted to equality, would lead, not just to great inequality, but to the death of millions.

Muggeridge was raised to believe that man was imperfect simply because he hadn’t yet done enough to save himself; he was raised to believe that human societies could, with the right laws, create a true earthly utopia. He came to believe in these things just as others come to believe in the Virgin Birth. In fact, he was sufficiently devoted to socialist ideals that, after discovering a passion for writing, he obtained a position at the Manchester Guardian—an anti-bourgeois paper devoted to the cause of the worker—and soon enough married Kitty Dobbs, a niece of Beatrice Webb (one of Britain’s premier socialists). Their communist sympathies led the young Muggeridge family, in 1932, to depart the evils of British capitalism and join the pilgrimage of mainstream journalists to Moscow, where he sought to inform the world of the glories of the Communist revolution.

The glories of Communism were not, of course, as evident as many had hoped. Though many journalists allowed themselves to be deluded by the Russian Politburo into thinking that present horrors were only temporary, Muggeridge’s disillusionment was almost immediate, as no amount of government control or censorship could keep him from noticing the truth of the bread lines or the famine spreading across the country, driven by the control of the Communist stormtroopers. After escaping the terrors of Russia, Muggeridge dramaticized what he found in Russia through his novel Winter in Moscow, which followed a group of journalists who allow themselves to ignore the horrors of Russia—it was as much an indictment of western journalism as it was the Soviet regime, and as a result it was practically unpublishable.

The failures of Communism—man’s greatest attempt at building a Kingdom of Heaven on Earth—left Muggeridge, as World War II approached, in a state of despair. He had traveled the world, from Moscow to India to Cairo, but had found no means of fulfillment, either for himself or for humanity. What he had not found in Communism, he now sought in war. Though he was a bit older than most recruits, which nearly prevented his enlistment, in the end he was accepted into the Secret Service and was shipped off to Lourenco Marques, Mozambique, a post that allowed him to start a new life, to live as a stranger, to practice espionage. And though life in Mozambique carried many new adventures and experiences, Muggeridge was led him to such depths of despair that, in what would be another defining moment of his life, he attempted suicide.

“One particular night,” he wrote in the second volume of his autobiography, Chronicles of Wasted Time, “after returning home, I lay on my bed full of stale liquor and despair; alone in the house, and, as it seemed, utterly alone, not just in Lournco Marques, in Africa, in the world. Alone in the universe, in eternity, with no glimmer of light in the prevailing blackness; no human voice I could hope to hear, or human heart I could hope to reach; no God to whom I could turn, or Savior to take my hand. Elsewhere, on battlefields men were killing and dying. I envied them; it was a solution and a solace of sorts. After all, the only bearable thing about war is the killing and the dying. That is its point. In the Blitz, with, as I thought, London falling about my ears, I had felt a kind of contentment; here in this remote, forgotten corner of the world, I fell into the final abyss of despair. Deprived of war’s only solace—death, given and received—it came into my mind that there was, after all, one death I could still procure. My own. I decided to kill myself.”

Muggeridge writes of swimming out into the ocean in an attempt to be swept away by the tide in order to drown in the Indian Ocean, never to be discovered. He swims far out, ready to do the deed, when suddenly he makes the mistake of looking back, of seeing the lights of town. “They were the lights of the world; they were the lights of my home, my habitat, where I belonged. I must reach them. There followed an overwhelming joy such as I had never experienced before; an ecstasy. In some mysterious way it became clear to me that there was no darkness, only the possibility of losing sight of a light which shone eternally; that our clumsy appetites are no more than the blind reaching of a newly born child after the teat through which to suck the milk of life; that our sufferings, our afflictions, are part of a drama—an essential, even an ecstatic, part—endlessly revolving round the two great propositions of good and evil, of light and darkness. A brief interlude, an incarnation, reaching back into the beginning of time, and forward into an ultimate fulfillment in the universal spirit of love which informs, animates, illuminates all creation, from the tiniest particle of insentient matter to the radiance of God’s very throne.” He turned and swam back to shore.

Something in his heart had begun to change. There was, as indeed there had always been, a nagging sense of spirituality hovering around him; he may not yet have been a Christian, but he knew, certainly, that there was no hope to be found anywhere else.

Returning from the war, Muggeridge returned to journalism. He spent the following decades growing in stature and public profile, first as the editor of Punch Magazine, then as a commentator on the radio and on the growing medium of television. Muggeridge writes with a deep sense of loss of these years, as, not yet a Christian, he fell deeply into the momentary solace of alcohol and adultery. But, as is the case when God is in control, even the greatest immoralities would be used for good, for through time wasted and false pleasures sought after, the truth of human life was becoming clearer to Muggeridge. Seeking after momentary pleasures and passions brought no lasting satisfaction, and no matter how hard men attempted to organize themselves in order to create a more perfect society, their attempts were destined to end in failure.

As these things became more evident, Muggeridge grew more and more conservative in his personal views. The context here is important: the change in Muggeridge’s views were not the consequences of his upbringing, nor of his education. His views were not founded on any preconceived political allegiances (his time in Moscow had cured him of those); rather, they arose as the natural consequence of decades of life experience. He had tried Communism, but found the very opposite of utopia; he had tried war, and found only that, rather than bringing a reason to live, it made him want to die; he tried sensuality and debauchery, but found that any pleasure was momentary and led to even greater emptiness.  If Malcolm Muggeridge could be certain of anything, it was that there was no hope to be found in earthly pleasures, and that the governments of men were just as incapable of offering salvation than the men who made them.

It all seems very cynical, and indeed it is hard to read anything from Muggeridge without a pang of hopelessness, but this impression really could not be more false. Yes, there is a sense of despair, but the despair is only lasting for one who has no hope outside of men. For those who place their hope elsewhere, the despair is momentary, giving way to a startlingly beautiful revelation! After a life of great, unceasing despair, Malcolm Muggeridge discovered great hope!

The seeds were planted, but it was only in the 1960’s that the first real steps toward Muggeridge’s spiritual awakening began. In 1969, Muggeridge produced a television special on a little-known Catholic Charity worker in India. The result was, not just a television special, but an accompanying book—Something Beautiful for God—which brought the first bit of international attention to Mother Teresa, while proving instrumental in Muggeridge’s acceptance of Christianity.

There was no single moment, no exact date, in which Muggeridge’s path toward conversion reached its culmination. What is clear is that by the end of the 1960’s, when he published a collection of essays entitled, Jesus Rediscovered, Muggeridge, the former womanizer, was now an evangelical Christian. St. Mugg, some called him in derision. His was one of the most public, and most controversial, conversions of the twentieth century, for he took his faith seriously; it was to guide the entirety of his public life for his remaining years.

The true glory of Muggeridge’s conversion is that, because it was really only the next step on the trajectory of his life, there was nothing truly dramatic about it. It was not an about-face—he just began to realize that he had been turning for some time and now found himself facing in an unexpected direction. Muggeridge did not stop studying current events in order to study theology—current events defined his theology. Or, rather, they reinforced his theology. The truth is that Malcolm Muggeridge’s theology was never very refined, as far as theology goes. He was never destined to be the next Martin Luther or Jonathan Edwards. He would never have been the sort of man likely to engage in a debate about the nuances of Calvinism or the essence of the trinity or even the differences between protestant and Catholic theologies (he did eventually join the Catholic church, but this was not exactly theological; it was, as he wrote, “the Catholic Church’s firm stand against contraception and abortion”). He was familiar with the scriptures, of course, but he always saw them, not as a matter of historical scholarship, but as a way of explaining the great and timeless struggle between God and Man. He saw them as representing beautiful spiritual truths rather than historical events (not that he disbelieved in their history; it simply wasn’t something he was concerned with).

The heart of Muggeridge’s theology (if it could be called that) was experiential. It was his first-hand observation (not faith) of the world. It was based on the failure of Communism, the futility of governments, the vapidity of sensuality. It was based on the continued, perpetual, persistent, failure of every one of man’s endeavors when they belong only to men. It was based, in short, on the truths of history, which are things not even the dourest of atheists could deny.

So there really is hope in Muggeridge’s theology, but it must begin with despair. The story of man striving after God is really the same story as Muggeridge’s own suicide attempt—for man, apart from God, really is one cosmic suicide attempt. Man seeks his own way until the moment he finally recognizes that he cannot do so any longer; and then he is faced with the choice: Life or Death. God is calling men to life. Muggeridge knew better than almost anyone what sort of death resulted when man made a conscious effort to abandon God and yet still try to achieve some sort of salvation. For Him there was nothing theoretical about any of it. There was no great leap of faith or shot in the dark. He simply arrived at a point in his life where he could no longer deny what had been patently obvious all along—he could no longer accept the desires of his flesh as the ultimate truth.

Muggeridge’s great contribution to Christian apologetics was to show that one needn’t strain themselves in an intellectual attempt to reason our way towards Christianity; not that Christianity is not reasonable, but that its truth is far more evident than we make it. When we struggle, intellectually, with Christianity, it is almost as if we are purposefully ignoring what the entire history of mankind (and the history of our own lives) has made obvious: we are, for whatever reason, trying to replace the perfect, joyous freedom of Christ with the freedom of man, which is really no different from slavery.

“A sense of how extraordinarily happy I have been,” Muggeridge wrote near the end of his life, “and of enormous gratitude to my creator, overwhelms me often. I believe with a passionate, unshakable conviction that in all circumstances and at all times life is a blessed gift; that the spirit that animates it is one of love, not hate or indifference, of light, not darkness, of creativity, not destruction, of order, not chaos; that, since all life—men, creatures, plants, as well as insensate matter—and all that is known about it, now and henceforth, have been benevolently, not malevolently, conceived, when the eyes see no more and the mind thinks no more, and this hand now writing is inert, whatever lies beyond will similarly be benevolently, not malevolently or indifferently, conceived. If it is nothing, then for nothingness I offer thanks; if another mode of existence, with this old, wornout husk of a body left behind, like a butterfly extricating itself from its chrysalis, and this floundering, muddle mind, now at best seeing through a glass darkly, given a longer range and a new precision, then for that likewise I offer thanks.”

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

God’s Spies

It’s been two thousand years (or very near it) since the final words of the New Testament were penned. Two millennia since the canon was closed, since the final inspired words of God were given to men. But what has happened in the meantime? Has God stopped speaking to and through the words of men? Have the last of God’s prophets walked the earth? Are the last messengers of the wisdom of God gone and buried in forgotten tombs?

Quite frankly, I don’t think so.

Malcolm Muggeridge spoke to this point beautifully in the collection of essays (which were really transcriptions of television specials he had written) he called A Third Testament. Muggeridge did not believe that the work of God had ended with the closing of scriptures, but that He had proceeded to send spies into the world; spies whose words, if not the living breathing Word of God Himself, offered man a taste of the divine. “In the case of the Old Testament Jews,” Muggeridge wrote, “it was the prophets who thus called them back to God - and when were there more powerful and poetic voices than theirs? Then came the New Testament, which is concerned with how God, through the Incarnation, became His own prophet. Nor was even that the end of the prophets and testaments. Between the fantasies of the ego and the truth of love, between the darkness of the will and the light of the imagination, there will always be the need for a bridge and a prophetic voice calling on us to cross it.”

Muggeridge focused on seven figures who had shaped his own understanding of God; men who, though not producing scripture per se, “had a special role in common, which was none other than to relate their time to eternity. This has to be done every so often; otherwise, when the lure of self-sufficiency proves too strong, or despair too overwhelming, we forget that men need to be called back to God to rediscover humility and with it, hope.”

Muggeridge’s list of “Third Testament” prophets (by no means complete) consisted of Augustine of Hippo, Blaise Pascal, William Blake, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Soren Kierkegaard, and Dietrich Bonheoffer. Muggeridge called them ‘God’s spies’, for there was something secretive and subversive, something cloak-and-dagger, about their methods. Whether it was Pascal, who gained great fame as an eminent scientist before pursuing his far greater love of Christian apology; Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, who secreted spiritual truths into their beloved writings, which kept spirituality alive in Russia, even as Bibles were being banned; Kierkegaard, who sought to reform the church under the guise of pure philosophy; or Bonheoffer, who quite literally carried the word of God into the heart of the enemy camp, accepting death at the hand of the Nazis as consequence for his subterfuge.

If I was to make my own list, what would it look like? Which voices has God used most readily to draw me closer to eternity; to give me hope and understanding, to supplement and enhancing His living word?

It is a fair question—and an important question—though it seemed overwhelming at first. There is really no shortage of clear and compelling Christian writers in the world, many of whom have influenced my thinking very directly. But, as I have considered the question, a few obvious suspects have stood out. One need only look at the things I have written and notice that there are some voices that are quoted far more often than others, evidence that their ideas and their ways of putting things have somehow resonated within me.

As I have read Muggeridge’s portraits of those whose words have inspired him, I was (as was certainly his purpose) moved to discover them for myself. My reasons here are really the same—I hope to encourage others to seek these men out and to find inspiration from them first-hand, rather than as a byproduct of the influence they have had on me. These men are far more than the quotes I have stolen from them, their ideas are far deeper than their witticisms (with the possible exception of G.K. Chesterton, whose ideas may be exactly as deep as his witticisms, but only because his witticisms are unusually deep); but it is the quality of their writing as much as the quality of their thoughts that has allowed them to stand above others in my mind.

It should be no surprise that I should begin my list with Muggeridge himself, who would never have been so vain as to include himself on his own list of modern day prophets. Indeed, I would consider him perhaps the most influential on my notions of apologetics, though he would have scoffed at the notion of being called an apologist, just as he would have laughed at the idea that he was a theologian. The glorious truth of Malcolm Muggeridge was that he was honest about the endless troubles of his own life. When, very late in life, he finally found his way to Christianity, he realized that, in his unflinching honesty, he had really been writing about God all along, without knowing. One may look at Muggeridge’s words long before he accepted the truth of Christianity and discover that, miraculously, the evidence for God is everywhere.

G.K. Chesterton, on the other hand, was significantly more self-aware of his own purposes and methods. Where Muggeridge wrote at length of his own intimate experiences in search of God, Chesterton’s method forged an endless broadening of ideas that had once been seen as narrow. He delved at length into fiction and fantasy—in fact, even his most serious works are not immune to grand flights of fancy. Where Muggeridge saw the entirety of his life as worthless, wasted effort, for he had, for too long, been searching for fulfillment outside of God, Chesterton had the uncanny ability to discover God even in the most trivial things. Muggeridge’s apologetic is practical, Chesterton’s was almost endlessly ethereal. But though they may be (in some respects) opposites, they are certainly not opposed; they are, in fact, almost perfectly complementary.

C.S. Lewis, certainly the most popular name on my list, forged path somewhere in between those of Muggeridge and Chesterton. Like Muggeridge, much of his greatest explanations of faith come from telling his own story.  Both men came to faith only after a lifetime fleeing, as Francis Thompson described, from the Hound of Heaven. Neither men were seeking God—both did everything in their power to escape Him. And yet both were found. However, like Chesterton, Lewis also had a flare for the fantastic, which he thought complemented the down-to-earth. Lewis’ writing, like Chesterton’s, also conveys a striking gift for turning a phrase; producing streams of endlessly quotable (and supremely logical) observations on man and his need for God.

Soren Kierkegaard is the one name in which my brief list overlaps with Muggeridge’s, but I simply couldn’t help it. Kierkegaard is, I think, a true outlier on this list for many reasons. Kierkegaard was a strange, peculiar character, whose personal qualities may be seen as either amusing or frightening. Though he is popularly considered a Christian existentialist, for all practical purposes he was more of a Christian eccentric. Among the men I have mentioned, he is certainly the most purely philosophical, and while much of his writing is, as a result, intimidatingly dense, he benefited from strange and exciting moments of perfectly clarity. Kierkegaard stood alone among his fellow philosophers in that he was constantly pitting Christianity against philosophy, only to discover that it was Christianity that always survived the encounter. Like Muggeridge, Chesterton and Lewis, Kierkegaard fought, not just for Christian ideas, but for real Christian living, which set all of them apart from mere theologians of philosophers.

There are others, of course. “...we may be sure,” Muggeridge concluded, “that other spies have been briefed and posted. It would be foolish even to speculate on their identity and whereabouts. One thing is certain, though: whoever and wherever they may be, great services will be required of them and great dangers encompass them.” Still speaking and writing today, and still inspiring believers and stupefying skeptics, there is Ravi Zacharias, William Lane Craig, Hugh Ross, Lee Strobel, John Piper, and countless others who continue to bring the freedom to the gospel to the minds of the world, whether by means as traditional as a sermon on Sunday or through a scientific lecture or public debate. But in the posts to come I will focus, not on the voices of today, but on these four men of the past 150 years, whose lives are absolutely inseparable from their work; whose writings deserve to be added to the pantheon of modern day prophecy.

I will begin, in the post to follow, with Muggeridge, a metaphorical spy of God in a spiritual battle, and a very literal spy of the British Empire in the midst of war.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

An Offensive Apologetic

In a previous post I wrote about the importance of a Christian having sound reason behind faith; I urged that we be ready to defend our faith to those who would question it. This is true, certainly--one must never be caught “blindly believing” in anything--but it raises further questions yet.

I previously asked how one ought to respond to a question such as, “Why are you a Christian?”

Certainly one ought to have an answer, but then comes the question of how to respond? In what tone and with what purpose?

There is one area where I think Christian apologetics often has it very wrong--and that is in the the notion that to “apologize” for something (such as a belief) means to offer a defense. To be an apologist, it seems, might be comparable to allow oneself to be put perpetually on a witness stand and cross-examined like a common criminal.

To be fair, this is certainly very close to what apologetics is (the word apologia, quite literally, means “defense”), but I think there are nuances to the concept that mean all the difference in the world. More accurately, especially when it comes to Christianity, an apology is not meant to offer a defense, but to lay a groundwork upon which faith may rest. More importantly, it should not be focused inward, on the Christian who answers, but outward, toward the skeptic who asks.  

It is said time and again by Christians (and by me, particularly), that we need always to be ready with a defense of our faith. The idea is appropriated from 1 Peter 3:15: “...always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you…” The translation may be accurate, but the idea is wrapped up, not in that one word--”defense”--but in the larger context. We are told to be prepared with an answer when someone asks for a reason for our hope. But here is the key: if someone is asking for a reason for our hope, we are not put in a defensive position. They are not asking about our sins or about our faults, but about our hope. They are asking about something that they desire for themselves! Our answer, therefore, is not defensive; our opponent has not dealt a blow, but has rather opened up their own defenses, and it is we who must strike!

This truth that is overshadowed by the word “defense” is that, truly, Christianity ought never be on the defensive. Christianity is really only effective when it is on the offensive; when it is eagerly and avidly moving forward. When it attempts a defensive posture, struggling to answer every foolish question and explain away every faulty premise devised by the logic of the world, it becomes gangly and awkward and truly difficult to manage.

When one is on the defensive, it means that he is being accused of something for which he ought to feel some shame. But Christianity is offering, not something shameful, but hope! It is offering grace and truth! Are these really things that need to be defended? Does a child have to be convinced to be excited about Christmas morning? Do the parents need to defend their decision to shower him with gifts? Of course not; the child, being wiser than many elderly skeptics, knows that a good thing may be either believed or disbelieved, but it need not be defended. Likewise, does the winner of the lottery have to be persuaded by the lottery commission to accept the prize?  Of course not; there is no hemming and hawing by the winner over whether or not this newfound wealth is really “right”. No time is taken for thinking or contemplating over whether or not the contest ever existed in the first place. The award is seen as good; it is simply claimed and spent. As Christians we often forget that this ought to hold true, as well, for a gift that is far greater than any lottery! Our posture should be that of conquerors who hold the secret that the world continually seeks! We have the answer, and we offer it freely to all--and yet, the world somehow succeeds, time and again, in putting us on the defensive.

When one responds to, “Why are you a Christian?” with a steady and rehearsed bundle of facts, it is a defensive response; it is the feeling that we are being told that we have done something wrong and feel, as a child being accused by a parent of breaking something valuable, as if we must explain ourselves for our own sake. But that is not how it ought to be.  Our response to “Why are you a Christian?” really has nothing to do with us. It has everything to do with the one who asks the question. We are answering, not for our own sake (for that would be defensive), but for theirs!

Jesus, it should be remembered, was never--not once--put on the defensive, though he was attacked at every turn. Though he was asked to explain himself on every controversy. Here, in the gospels, we see a true master of apologetics in action: one who knew that an attack was not an opportunity to defend oneself, but to parry and strike. No wonder so many of His attackers left the encounter sulking in bitterness and anger, for their attempts had failed to elicit so much as hesitation, and instead forced them to question their own assumptions. When asked about the ethics of paying taxes, Christ did not turn to scriptures in order to offer up some complex theological or political response; he merely asked, “Whose picture is on the coin?” and so demonstrated the foolishness of the initial question.

If He had been asked, “Why are you a Christian?” how might Jesus have answered (setting aside, for a moment, the absurdity of asking this of He who put the “Christ” in Christian)? I cannot imagine Jesus attempting an answer founded on science, logic, or theology. I doubt that he would have attempted to bait his questioners into some philosophical trap. He would not have felt the need to defend himself--for He would know that the question was not being asked for His sake. I am convinced that He would have answered with a question of His own--perhaps something as simple as, “Why do you reject Christianity?” For the question may have been asked in order to force a defense; but it is really the questioner who ought to be put on the stand, to defend their refusal--for indeed one ought to have an answer for why they have refused such a  gift--and Jesus would have seen this as an opportunity to strike.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

An Old Fashioned Credo

I was called “old fashioned” the other day.

No, that is not entirely accurate. It was not said to my face, and it was not in any way directed toward me. It was said in a nearby conversation with which I was not involved, but it was said about a belief that I very much continue to hold. Had these individuals known that their accusations were applicable to someone who happened to be inadvertently (or advertently, as it may very well have been) eavesdropping, would they have still used the phrase? I wouldn’t think so, as our world has become far too (woefully) peaceable for that. They would have politely waited until I was out of earshot.

Old Fashioned.

I didn’t laugh when I heard it, as it took a few moments for me to absorb the term, by which time I was in control of my responses. But as soon as I understood it, I knew that it really was hilarious, though not entirely unexpected. It might have been intended as an insult, and as a result it really was funny, because I realize now that the insult is really on the accuser.

I am not, for the record, speaking about being called old fashioned in terms of clothing or tastes in movies or music or any other sort of passing fad, in which case the term might, indeed, be accurate (and does, in many ways, describe me). What I’m referring to is the much more foolish notion that one somehow may be accused of believing in something that has the audacity to also have been believed at some time in the past. “Oh, you believe in X? Well, don’t you know that people believed in X during the 19th century? Don’t you know that X was believed back when men practically still lived in caves and beat their women over the heads?”

In the same vein (but in somewhat different words), a response to one of my previous articles, on the Christian faith, made (with what I assume was a straight face, though I have no direct knowledge) the accusation, which he deemed a grave insult, that I was guilty of believing in “Bronze-age fables,” as if somehow being believed by men in the bronze age immediately renders something untrue today.
The accusation is really the epitome of audacity. What sort of fool would accuse another of believing something simply because it had the longevity to survive the generations? Is this really something to be pitied? Or is it more pitiful to immediately believe in something that has only just occurred to men? Is it more foolish to believe in something that has been discussed and debated among philosophers and theologians for thousands of years, or to throw the entire weight of belief behind something devised by some social scientist in the 1960’s? Would I rather have the weight of history behind my beliefs, or the opinions of progressive politicians and modern psychology?

Of course, it should be noted that the term itself is really inaccurate in the first place, for, in order for something to be “old fashioned”, it really has to have gone out of style at some point, but this is really hardly ever true about beliefs that are called old-fashioned.  I am, for example, quite “old fashioned” in my idea of marriage, but only because I believe in the same things that have been believed and continue to be believed and have not been persuaded by the strange new ideas of a very vocal minority. I am “old fashioned” in my idea of human life, but only because I agree with the consensus of history that there is something truly valuable about it, and I have not obtained the sort of faith required to believe in the modern notion that humanity is a bad thing, and that we really ought to be able to end life just as it is beginning.  

The truth is that many things deemed old fashioned are not really old fashioned at all. It may be true that some have ceased believing in it (and they are often very loud about it), though the belief itself has survived, for as often as not it has the benefit of being true. When someone says that something is old fashioned (when they really ought to say “traditional”), it only means that they have somehow come to live in a world that refuses to recognize that certain things have never died. They only wish that they had. Just because one wishes that some new and novel belief would overrun the world does not make the current beliefs old fashioned. In fact, it means (and it really must mean) that what is new faces an uphill battle to overtake the traditional. But this is a good thing. It should be difficult for the world to come around to something new. We often chastise ancients for not coming around quickly enough to some belief or another that turned out to be true, but why? Isn’t there something admirable about being steadfast, about holding to things and not letting them go without certainty?

One should never be quick to abandon the traditional in favor of the novel. If some new belief comes along and happens to bring along with it the virtue of truth, that is, if it really is better than the traditional belief, then it very well may be inevitable, and it is certainly worth fighting for, but it should not be accepted without a fight. That being said, these things are rare. We might use the abolition of slavery as an example of this, but this is only partially true, for in effect, slavery itself was a bit of a novelty, at least among the Christian world. The abolition of slavery was really in itself a return to something “old fashioned”, for the tradition of Christianity has always differed from the world in its idea of freedom and human dignity. The evil of slavery was a novelty that tragically wormed its way into the world in the same way infanticide continues to gain popularity today; and it is only the “old fashioned” among us who endeavor to protect the world from being swept away by every novelty.   

“Old fashioned” is, in short, a badge of honor, and ought to be worn with pride. The accusation ought to be accepted gladly. Those who accuse others of being old fashioned are really the ones who ought to be pitied for their absolute willingness to believe in the absurdest things.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Faith and First Principles

“Why are you a Christian?”
“Because I believe in God, and…”
“Yes, of course, but why do I believe in God?”
“Because I have faith.”
“But why?”

This is a conversation for which most Christians are woefully unprepared. Christians long to be known by their works (though for many of us this is just as challenging), but dread the moment when they must offer a clear, convincing argument for their beliefs. As such, we really ought to take a moment every now and again to consider how the conversation ought to go.
It is worth considering, first of all, that whenever anyone asks a question like, “Why are you a Christian?” they are not looking for answers that only beg more questions. At least, they shouldn’t be. A person who asks, “Why are you a Christian?” should really be looking for something more fundamental. They should be looking for first principles; they should be looking for an answer that is irreducible and axiomatic. Something observable and undeniable. The same is true in science, for anyone who asks, in a science classroom, a question like “What are we made of?” is not looking for a stopgap answer, but for an answer founded on first principles. Anyone genuinely searching for an answer may be satisfied, at first, with something as superficial as, “We are made of atoms,” but it is only a matter of time before they recognize the obvious next question, “But what are atoms made of?” And, of course, the answer that follows (atoms are made of protons, neutrons and electrons), leads to yet another question, and another. An infinite regression.
A first principle is what we are left with in those unique moments when the last question has been answered. It is something that demands no further questioning; and it is something that is surprisingly rare, especially in science.  As C.S. Lewis observed, “The laws of physics decree that when one billiards ball (A) sets another billiards ball (B) in motion, the momentum lost by A Exactly equals the momentum gained by B.  This is a Law. That is, this is the pattern to which the movement of the two billiards balls must conform. Provided, of course, that something sets ball A in motion. And here comes the snag. The law won’t set it in motion. It is usually a man with a cue who does that.” This is a question of first principles. When we say that something is a law, the law is not a first principle--the first principle is whatever lies behind the law. A first principle is are what is left when every question has been answered--something basic enough to be readily accepted by all. As far as the question, “What are we made of?” the truth is that the first principle remains very much unknown. The first few questions in the series can be answered, but the first principle still eludes us, if, indeed, there is a first principle to be found.
But the question “Why are you a Christian?” is infinitely more important than the question of matter (I would much rather be certain about Christianity than about atoms), and as such we really should be searching for first principles. The genuine seeker who asks “Why are you a Christian?” will only be satisfied for so long (if at all) with any non-absolute answer. “I am a Christian because I feel that it is true.” “I am a Christian because I believe in Jesus.” “I am a Christian because I know that God loves me.” These may be answers, and they may be, in part, true, but they are not the answer. They all lead to still more questions.
Often, the answers given by Christians are founded on faith. “I am a Christian because I have faith.” But faith is not a first principle. Faith cannot (at least, should not) exist on its own merits. It must be founded on something.
“Faith,” as is recited so often that it has become almost cliché, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Further, “…without faith it is impossible to please (God), for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and rewards those who seek Him.”
Faith is lauded throughout scripture, and we are promised that our faith will be rewarded; consequently, one is often tempted to rely on faith, as if it stood alone at the core of Christianity; further, we come to suspect that true faith requires no foundation of evidence, or, worse, that evidence must be avoided, for it means that faith is no longer needed. But the truth is that faith, while wholly necessary, is not a first principle.  One cannot be a Christian without faith, but one cannot have faith without knowledge. Real faith must be founded upon something more tangible. Just because faith is “the conviction of things not seen” doesn’t mean that it is a thing with no basis. Faith isn’t a feeling, and real faith is certainly never blind. This is something that I think is often misunderstood, even among Christians. It is not a burning in the bosom or the result of a vision from a dream. When faith is founded purely on the ethereal it is more often than not a means of justifying one’s own needs and desires. One may claim to act in the name of faith, but the faith is only a manifestation of some deeper desire.
It is clear in the Bible that to have faith is not as easy as just believing in something without reason. If it was that simple, one could simply follow their own urges and claim faith as justification for almost anything (in fact, this is exactly what does happen far too often in our world). The Christian often bristles at the thought that one should need to offer evidence to support Christianity, as if that would somehow circumvent the requirement that one have faith. But faith must be founded on something! It cannot possibly exist without a foundation.
There are matters of fact and there are matters of faith, and they are rarely as separate as they may seem; more often than not it is the fact comes first, and faith is what results. The new Christian takes the final step of faith only after a foundation of fact has been laid. One may scour the scriptures for the great demonstrations of faith, but only rarely (if ever) does one find that faith is not preceded by some fact. Abraham was not acting on feelings or urges when he agreed to sacrifice his son—it was only after hearing, directly, the voice of God, and well after God had already provided him plenty of proof.  Moses did not venture into Egypt to face Pharoah on faith alone—he did so after God Himself spoke to him out of a burning bush. Even Paul, so often lauded for the great faith that allowed him to be persecuted and, in the end, martyred, believed as the result of a face to face meeting with the risen Christ, and though it may have manifested itself as physical blindness, there was nothing blind in Paul’s faith. If Paul was asked why he was a Christian he would not have said, “Because I have faith.” He would have proclaimed, boldly, the facts of what he saw and experienced.
One generally does not begin believing in God by first believing in the parting of the red sea.  Rather, one first comes to believe in God, and only then obtains the faith that God worked that miracle. One does not first come to believe in the strange truth of the trinity and then accept Christianity; Christianity comes first, based on facts, and then one can come to faith that this profound mystery is true.  
Christianity really is based on facts first and then faith.  
Which leads us back, once again, to the initial question: What are the first principles of Christianity? What are the facts upon which the faith is founded?
There are two that seem to stand above the others: the fact of existence and the fact of sin.
I have spent too much of my own life in trying to prove things that ought to be taken on faith (obscure theological principles), and taking on faith things that really ought to be taken as fact (science and history). But it is a fact—no scientist would deny it (though the occasional philosopher might)—that we exist. It is a fact that there are, in fact, things in our universe and that somehow these things came to be, and though science has tried theory after theory, it is a thing with no absolute scientific explanation. That is the fact, and it is faith that leads me to believe that there is no scientific explanation to be found (just as it is faith that leads others to believe in the contrary). As Lewis explains: “…the laws of Nature explain everything except the source of events. But this is rather a formidable exception. The laws, in one sense, cover the whole of reality except—well, except that continuous cataract of real events which makes up the actual universe. They explain everything except what we should ordinarily call ‘everything’. The only thing they omit is—the whole universe.”
So, when someone asks, “Why do you believe in God?” I might begin here--with the fact of existence. Something that science still cannot explain, but which those who believe in God have understood for thousands of years.
Second, it is a fact that man, after coming to exist (see above), found, somewhere along the way, that something was terribly wrong. Man has always been defined most accurately by his imperfections. Is there a single historian who would deny that man is a broken, imperfect creature? The story of the growth of the Roman Empire is grand, but the story of its fall tells us far more about humanity.  Indeed, history offers no ambiguity as to the fact that man has been his own worst enemy for as long as he has been keeping records of his own failures. And it is a fact that evolution has failed time and again in ridding man of his weaknesses or curing society of its ills; we are neither better nor worse than we have always been.
It is a fact, as well, that both of these questions are resolved within the first pages of scripture, and with far more certainty than science or philosophy could ever hope to obtain.
So, when someone asks, “Why are you a Christian?” I might begin here--with the fact of sin, and the fact that Christianity has provided, not only the only clear explanation, but the only clear answer.
All of this, of course, demands greater exploration, and these are by no means the only facts to be found in Christianity, but the principle remains: Christian platitudes aside, faith is beautiful, but it is something that must stand upon a foundation. Every Christian should stop and ask themselves why they believe before attempting to explain it to others.
“Saul,” says the book of Acts, “increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.” Paul did not demand of his listeners that they must simply have faith. He understood that his faith had a reasonable basis. He understood that there were facts that could lead his listeners to faith, and that is a beautiful thing.