Sunday, August 10, 2014

tidal tides and declawed lions

The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused Him of being a bore--on the contrary; they thought Him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround Him with an atmosphere of tedium.
--Dorothy Sayers, The Greatest Drama Ever Staged

I just read the most remarkable, insightful, and terribly funny collection of essays by Dorothy Sayers. Who, is, of course, my new favorite person. She's essentially a feminist and feminine C.S. Lewis, so what on earth is not to love?
Her essays, entitled Creed or Chaos? directly address (before it was even a vocalized phenomenon) the "spiritual but not religious" category of persons that so preoccupies and bemuses modern theologians.

These perspicacious essays reminded me of two things:

Thing the First being a hilarious and scathingly sardonic review of Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion by Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books. When my friend sent it to me, I re-read it over and over again, mining little nuggets of pure gold from it with each fresh perusal. Entitled Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching, the review points out (with little sparing of Mr. Dawkins' ego, but with great wit) what Mr. Eagleton sees as the chief flaw with the book The God Delusion: namely, that Mr. Dawkins does not seem to know what he is talking about. More specifically, Mr. Dawkins does not appear really to have a grasp of either: A. basic Christian theology or B. what that theology says about God.
 "Imagine," says Mr. Eagleton, "someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is The Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology." 
Oh. my.
[No, no, but tell us what you really think, Mr. Eagleton.]
Mr. Eagleton, however, is not picking on Mr. Dawkins in order to simply take pot-shots at a man he disagrees with, but rather, he uses The God Delusion and his author as a perfect example of a pandemic problem that plagues theological or religious critiques:
"The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster."
Mr. Eagleton points out that there seems to be this strange disconnect between religion and rational thinking. Although there is a long and celebrated history of rational thinkers who have undertaken the study of God, there seems to be a certain bizarre allowance for absolute hogwash to be written on this hazy phenomenon of religion and the even hazier and less-defined subject of spirituality.
Abandon rational thought, all ye who enter here, we might as well write above our church doors.
Dorothy Sayers addresses this very issue in her essays, which chide Christians for ignoring dogma at their own peril.
For certainly, she points out, the dogma isn't the boring stuff of religion that gets in the way of the fun, good-feelings stuff, the dogma is really it. Without dogma, there's no way of describing what exactly the Trinity is, or who exactly this Son of God/Son of Man/[God the Son?]/Jesus Christ/Jesus of Nazareth person is.
And the whole point of Christianity is that this Jesus person is rather important. His importance is not explained vaguely, it is laid out precisely, and its precision hits us as lightning might.
And in this precise declaration of who do we say that He is, we find a greater focal point for the dramatic action of history than we could have ever dreamed. There is more dramatic tension in the words: The Word Became Flesh than Shakespeare are Marlowe could have ever invented.
Mr. Eagleton would agree:
 "The Christian faith holds that those who are able to look on the crucifixion and live, to accept that the traumatic truth of human history is a tortured body, might just have a chance of new life – but only by virtue of an unimaginable transformation in our currently dire condition. This is known as the resurrection. Those who don’t see this dreadful image of a mutilated innocent as the truth of history are likely to be devotees of that bright-eyed superstition known as infinite human progress, for which Dawkins is a full-blooded apologist"
But the words: "The Word Became Flesh" are not cheap sentiment, nor do they merely appeal to our spiritual 6th sense. They represent an idea, an historic event. And like all other ideas and historic events,  our minds encounter them along with our hearts. Thus, a millennia's worth of thought has been put towards understanding, parsing, illuminating what it could possibly mean for the Word to become flesh, and just how that might influence the rest of our lives, the world, and everything in it.
Perhaps it is not our religions and their dogmas which are laced with antiquated superstition. Perhaps the newer idol of progress is actually the sentimental pipe-dream, the opium of the masses. Or perhaps it is just our age-old friend superbia back to haunt us in a different guise. For it is much more comfortable (in a cheap sort of way), and seems more natural for all us humans to gather around our fellow humans and say: well, it's up to us. We've got to Keep Going Forward. Perhaps the greatest new temptation is this do-it-yourself transcendence. But, as Jeremiah would be quick to remind us: cursed is the man who puts his trust in man. (And you thought you could trust in your neighbors to look after your cat for you. Think again, warns Jeremiah.) It seems that even back in Jeremiah's day, human beings were more into looking to themselves to answer rather than depending upon annoying things like God and boring things like religion and dogma.
Huh. I guess, unlike the internet, sin wasn't invented in the 20th century. Who knew?

 It is rather to claim that while faith, rather like love, must involve factual knowledge, it is not reducible to it.
--Terry Eagleton

Thing the Second that came to mind as I read Ms. Sayers' charming essays was a quote from a book written by one of my professors at Notre Dame, which goes something like this:
Catechesis is the art of systematic amazement.
--Timothy P. O'Malley
Which, of course, reminds me of the G.K. Chesterton quote:
The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder. 
Which, of course, is Chesterton's way of saying precisely what Ms. Sayers are saying: if we find religion boring it is because we are missing something. The technicality of theology, Dorothy Sayers would argue, is precisely what ought to fill us with wonder. If we are actually reading what is written, we will find it completely wonder-filled. We only find the dogma stale because we have a blind spot in our vision, and we still have not yet learned to see clearly; we are still somewhat in the dark. 
Perhaps we have not yet allowed ourselves to be amazed.

So that is the outline of the official story--the tale of the time when God was the under-dog and got beaten, when He submitted to the conditions He had laid down and became a man like the men He had made, and then the men He had made broke Him and killed Him. This is the dogma we find so dull-this terrifying drama of which God is the victim and hero. If this is dull, then what, in Heaven's name, is worthy to be called exciting? 
--Dorothy Sayers, The Greatest Drama Ever Staged

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