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Nature is only Seen from Supernature Although Miracles is one of those books I have been immersed in for the past year, I somehow missed this one:

"Only Supernaturalists really see Nature. You must go from away from her, and then turn round, and look back. Then at last the true landscape will become visible. You must have tasted, however briefly, the pure water from beyond the world before you can be distinctly conscious of the hot, salty tang of Nature's current. To treat her as God, or as Everything, is to lose the whole pith and pleasure of her. Come out, look back, and then you will see." (C.S. Lewis, Miracles; qtd. in Planets in Peril)

What I see here is another of Lewis's expressions of the sacramental imagination, which exalts rather than denigrates Nature. This imagination formed by the biblical story allows one to view Nature with the wonder of a child at the sea shore who happens upon small tidal pool teeming with the barely visible but exciting dance of life, or discovers those mysterious little sand crabs just below the surface of the foamy sand. [12.9.08]

Growing without Erasing I came across this quote in a book I am reading:

"Humanity does not pass through phases as a train passes through stations: being alive, it has the privilege of always moving yet never leaving anything behind. Whatever we have been, in some sort we still are." (C.S. Lewis, Allegory of Love; qtd. in D. Downing, Planets in Peril 60)

The person is dynamic, ever-developing, but the earlier stages of development are never erased. The person is formed by experiences, obviously. One cannot undo the past. Although we must also allow for the transformation of a person, even a 180 degree change, the past shapes who one is today. The person is shaped by, reacts to, even opposes past experience; thus one's past remains a factor in the formation of the person. [12.5.08]

Lewis the Thomist? I happened upon the following line in CS Lewis's chapter on the Incarnation:

"Nature by dominating spirit wrecks all spiritual activities: spirit by dominating Nature confirms and improves natural activities." ("The Grand Miracle," Miracles)

This strikes me as Lewis's version of grace-perfecting-nature. A professor friend thinks Lewis's opinion of nature and grace reflects Henri De Lubac:

"When He said, ‘Be perfect,’ He meant it. He meant that we must go in for the full treatment. It is hard; but the sort of compromise we are all hankering after is harder—in fact, it is impossible. It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad." ("Is Christianity Hard or Easy?" Mere Christianity)

De Lubac's 's controversial position was that there were no natural ends (or, goal, purpose, from the Greek term telos); the human person has super-natural ends. According to Lewis's egg image, the egg is meant to hatch as a chick; this is the end of an egg, parallel to the supernatural end of the human person. A person cannot go on as a merely natural person; either one is born again as a Spirit creature, or one goes bad. Lewis presents this in his fine dream story, The Great Divorce. [11.5.08]

Life as Battle, Journey, Riddle I happened upon this line from GK Chesterton in A. Jacobs's Narnian: "The 'Iliad' is only great because all life is a battle, the Odyssey' because all life is a journey, the Book of Job because all life is a riddle" (Defendant). The point seems to be that the great story is great because it reflects the real story of human life. Even in the stories of great heroes non-heroic human life is captured. Jacobs quotes another of Chesterton that is more general on the human story as story: "The life of man is a story; an adventure story; and in our vision the same is true even of the story of God" (Orthodoxy qtd. in Narnian 124). That is, the biblical drama of salvation also reflects our stories. Thus the Bible is not a story imposed; rather, it is a story that resonates with human experience. [10.27.08]

Lewis on the Creation Story This is from his book Miracles:
"No philosophical theory which I have yet come across is a radical improvement on the words of Genesis, that 'In the beginning God made Heaven and Earth'. I say 'radical' improvement, because the story in Genesis—as St Jerome said long ago—is told in the manner 'of a popular poet', or as we should say, in the form of folk tale. But if you compare it with the creation legends of other peoples—with all these delightful absurdities in which giants to be cut up and floods to be dried up are made to exist before creation—the depth and originality of this Hebrew folk tale will soon be apparent." ("Nature and Supernature")

I do not like to take on arguments about which story is better. Rather, I know that since I am a Christian I will believe that my story is better than all other creation stories (cosmogonies). The Babylonian Enuma Elish (which Lewis alludes to) is not my story and therefore does not appeal to me.

On the other hand, it is interesting that of all the ancient cosmogonies, only the Hebrew one continues to capture the imagination of people who live 2500-3000 years after it was composed. The allure of this story may be a by-product of its place in the larger Christian drama of salvation, but one should also be aware of the extent to which the Hebrew cosmogony is responsible for and resonates with the modern Western exalted view of nature and the human person. [10.22.08]

The Christian Moral Imagination I have used the phrase moral imagination in the college classroom for years. No, I am never certain students know what I mean. What I refer to is the way our story, especially in the Gospels and Paul's interpretation of Christ's paschal mystery, shapes the Christian to respond to moral conflict.

A moral dilemma might best be described as the conflict between two values. For example, the abortion dilemma concerns the clash between freedom of the host (pregnant woman) and the unborn's right to life.* The natural rights of life and freedom are at the top of most moral hierarchies.

To respond creatively to the dilemma -- that is, not simply a response determined by a rule book of moral do's-and-don'ts -- a person has to be shaped to see the possible. The possible in the Christian story is modeled on Jesus' self-emptying on behalf of others, the reversal of expectations in his Beatitudes, on the master washing his disciples' feet, the outcast choosing better than the elite, even the Hebrew midwives defying the embodied Egyptian god.

Both our vision -- that which we can see in-with-and-under the visual phenomena -- and our choices are shaped by our story. Yes, Christians use the Bible as a moral rule book, but I do not think this is the higher way. Perhaps the higher way is signaled in Jesus' parables, in which he defies the audience's expectations in favor of a creative response that more faithfully reflects the highest values. Jesus dis-orients us so that we can truly see the possible beyond the habitual.

Consider the example of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta: the possible was not simply whom to marry, family prosperity, etc. Rather, for her the possible was to empty herself on behalf of this world's wretched. She chose the option that our story opens to us.

This is the Christian moral imagination: in the midst of conflict, the seeing and choosing of options only opened to us by our story.

*It is not a clash, however, between the human rights of freedom and life because the pro- and anti- positions do not agree on what constitutes a human person. In other words, are the unborn "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty"? If US citizens agreed on what constitutes a human life, there would likely be no moral dilemma because only the most extreme minority supports the killing of human beings. If the unborn are human beings, they have human rights. Abortion is not an option.

Yeshu-Rophay My family has been listening to a popular Christian song, "Healer." Moreover, it has been meaningful to me as I think of a sister-in-Christ who is about to undergo cancer surgery. The song was written by an Australian man who mislead a great many sincere Christians by claiming he was suffering with cancer. The song expressed his faith in Jesus-the-healer.

If there is no cancer, is Jesus still his healer? Well, yes, for this man confessed that his disease was really pornography. He said he could not get it out of his head. The viewer is certainly not simply a victim of pornography, but its impact is pernicious in one's imagination and more than one foresees. It is too easy to interpret pornography as a spiritual cancer -- thus reducing the real physical suffering of our loved ones -- but it is something that Christ heals by forgiveness, cleansing and inward transformation.

When I heard the news today of this man's deceit I wondered whether I could still listen to the song. My son said it is still a good song, but I am afraid it will always signify a lie -- even though Christ must be my healer, my rophay, or I am lost. Perhaps the song will now always recall to me the extent to which I am spiritually lost, a prisoner of my will, locked away in my own darkness of spirit.

Blessed Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit
I ask that you enlighten me
and dispel the darkness of my spirit.

Give me a faith that is without limit,
a hope that is unfailing,
and a love that is universal.

Grant, O my Lord,
that I may really know you
and that I might be guided in all things
according to your will.
[a slight revision of a Franciscan prayer; 9.1.08]

Interpret the OT through Christ Lenses I prefer to write rather than quote in my blogs, but I just happened upon this from Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict:

"For the Christian, the Old Testament represents, in its totality, an advance towards Christ; only when it attains to him does its real meaning, which was gradually hinted at, become clear. Thus every individual part derives its meaning from the whole, and the whole derives its meaning from its end--from Christ. Hence we only interpret an individual text correctly (as the fathers of the Church recognized and as the faith of the Church in every age has recognized) when we see it as a way that is leading us ever forward, when we see in the text where this way is tending and what its inner direction is." ~ J. Ratzinger, In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall (Eerdmans, 1995), pp. 9-10.

In other words, the OT derives its meaning from its end -- goal, purpose, God-designed destination -- Christ. Therefore readers of the OT have to be careful to interpret with Christ-as-the-full-revelation-of-God in mind. [8.27.08]

Looking At and Looking With I believe that Malcolm Muggeridge first alerted me to the distinction between looking at and looking with -- was it in his fine End of Christendom (1980), in which St. Mugg reflected on William Blake's "seeing with" not "through" the eye? I cannot recall, but I have come across the useful distinction in CS Lewis's writings.

Looking at is the approach of analysis, the poking and prodding, even dissecting, of a thing to discover its parts, its mechanisms, etc. Looking at also signifies the steps taken to uncover the processes by which a thing came to be -- philosophically a much more difficult form of reasoning since historical processes cannot be verified.

Looking with signifies meaning making: first, seeing what a thing sees; secondly, the process of understanding and valuing.

I am not sure how far I would press this, but it seems looking at reflects the approach of science, whereas looking with is identified with philosophy, theology and the arts.

Looking at the human person, then, might signify biochemical or psychological analysis. I struggled with biology in college, but I can at least recall that it was intended to identify the way in which the body functions. (Chemistry made more sense because of the molecule kits) Two decades ago the biochemical worth of the human person was under $20. Perhaps certain body parts are of more economic value, some detached from the body of a person (e.g., heart, lever) and some not (i.e., sexually receptive parts). Demand impacts worth here.

But is this the value of the human person? Looking with the person reveals the sense of being more than the sum of one's parts or more than the value in trade. I understand that I am worth X dollars biochemically or economically, but this material worth does not reflect my sense that I am, as CS Lewis noted, a fish-out-of-water, a person who is aware that he has a longing for something higher, something beyond the mere material aspects of human existence.

Scientific looking at cannot uncover the awareness of freedom that the human person expresses. There is no centrifuge to separate human rights from animal drives. One must look with art, poetry, music, philosophy, and -- yes -- theology to discover the value of human life.

Human persons express a something more in their art and music, a looking with. The negativity projected in modern art and music unveils the person's experience of disappointment and despair. Looking with this negativity might suggest that the person is hopeless, fated for desperation and futility, but it also signifies the awareness of the something more, the longing for one's true home, a higher calling. [8.23.08]

Dis-ordered In the previous entry I quoted St. Thomas Aquinas on "disordered affections." I like to word "dis-order" because it suggests misusing or undoing one's divine design rather than simply breaking the rules of Another (autonomy vs. heteronomy). But it seems as though one cannot use the term without explaining: understandably, people do not like themselves or their behavior being called "disordered."

The Creator orders; the creature dis-orders. God designs, plans, programs all things for a good end or purpose (Greek telos). Human freedom is one of those things that God has ordered to a good end: "freedom exists to serve love," wrote John Paul the Great. This means that God ordered or designed freedom to make possible the human choice to love God. Without freedom to choose the Other there is no real love.

The dis-ordering of freedom, then, is the using of it for other ends -- to serve individual pleasure, for example. God has ordered freedom to serve love (of God or other persons), so its use to attain a personal end at the expense of another is dis-ordered. Hence the Christian (especially Catholic) grammar of dis-ordered sexual acts: a person uses freedom to attain personal pleasure at the expense of the other person's God-designed good.

The concept is related to the distinction between first and second things: God has ordered the person to first things. The pleasures of second things are ordered to first things; they are not an end in themselves (this goes against the Catholic idea of secondary ends, I believe). Practically this means that the pleasures a person experiences in a second thing are meant to point one to the first thing -- consider the sacramental value of marriage!

Dis-ordered lives seek second things rather than the first thing: the primary end of the person in unification with the Trinity. The human temptation is to seek secondary ends in order to experience (secondary) pleasure. But the secondary cannot satisfy because the person has been ordered to unification in love with the Trinity. As CS Lewis notes in The Four Loves, "to let us down while legitimately attracting us is the very characteristic of a second thing which has been treated as a first thing." [8.10.08]

First and Second Things I have often pooh-poohed the Christian appropriation of the first commandment: to have no other God, to refrain from making idols. This command was given to ancient Israel, for whom polytheism and idolatry were real options. But today polytheism and idolatry are hardly temptations. Judeo-Christian monotheism has won the battle with paganism (see DB Hart's, "Christ and Nothing"). In place of Ba'al and Serapis, moderns have substituted a new-agey pantheism and a relativistic nothing-ism.

Christians have converted idolatry to a metaphor-of-sorts, in that it no longer signifies the making of images of a god. I do not know when this shift first emerged, but the principle behind it is suggested by St. Paul, who noted that human beings "worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator" (Romans 1:25). 

I have come around. I now recognize that serving and worshiping the creature rather than the Creator is THE idolatrous temptation of the modern Christian. What influenced me first was John Paul the Great's moral-philosophical method based on Jesus' command to love God and neighbor in Love and Responsibility (1960). More recently I have found meaningful CS Lewis's simple distinction between first and second things: "You can't get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first." (Walter Hooper argues that this theme permeates Lewis's work; I think I agree.)

Christians believe that the human person was designed to find completion only in God; one hungers for God because unification with God is the goal of human life. God is therefore the person's first thing. Everything else, even another person, is a second thing at best.

Thus, for Christians idolatry is the subordination (a placing beneath in importance) of one's first thing, God, to a second thing. The human person may attempt to fill that longing for God with second things, but this results in the loss of the second thing too. For Lewis, seeking God first, and subordinating all other things to this -- our primary good -- results in finding the joy that God intended in created things.

Obviously Jesus's words echo here: "seek first the kingdom of God...and all these things will be added to you" (Matthew 6:33). And what can go wrong with the person was identified by St. Thomas Aquinas: "Men were led to idolatry first by disordered affections, inasmuch as they bestowed divine honors upon someone whom they loved or venerated beyond measure." [8.4.08]

<<view Apocalypse of Peace archives>>

A Course on Narnia
For Students of Biblical Languages
Bear One Another's Burdens
The Story and the Sacraments
Lewis, Paul and Orthodoxy
Love and Money
Whither the Creation Story?
The Danger of Light and Joy
Heavens and the Sky
Root Assumptions of CST
Re-SHALOM-ification
Apocalypse of Peace


"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." ~ Aristotle

"Whoever labors to penetrate the secrets of reality with a humble and steady mind, even though she is unaware of the fact, is nevertheless being led by the hand of God, who holds all things in existence and gives them their identity." ~ Gaudium et Spes 36

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blog Archive:
A Course on Narnia
For Students of Biblical Languages
Bear One Another's Burdens
The Story and the Sacraments
Lewis, Paul and Orthodoxy
Love and Money
Whither the Creation Story?
The Danger of Light and Joy
Heavens and the Sky
Root Assumptions of CST
Re-SHALOM-ification
Apocalypse of Peace

Confirmation: a Theological Overview

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Catholic Social Doctrine ~ Selection of Quotes (.pdf)

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