Category Archives: History
The Importance of Focusing on the Ideal. A Lesson Learned from G. K. Chesterton’s WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE WORLD
I recently had a conversation with a friend at my cottage about one of the injustices that occurred in our past in Canada and the inevitable question came up: “What do we do about it now?” As various potential answers to this question were proposed, they seemed unsatisfactory. Indeed often they seem to propose a new injustice visited on people who were, of course, not alive one hundred or two hundred years ago to redress wrongs in which they had no direct part.
I was just reading G. K. Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World at the time, and it struck how illuminating and helpful his work was for enabling me personally sort through this puzzle of separating good solutions from bad ones.
Chesterton made the point that so often when we try to fix what is wrong with the world, we pay insufficient attention to defining what the ideal is or should be (the picture of flower reminds me of an ideal). He uses the metaphor of a medical doctor. If a doctor is to heal a patient, he has to have an accurate notion of what a healthy person looks like. If he just focuses on defects or things that are wrong, then the remedial action may actually make things worse rather than better for the patient.
To use an extreme example to make a point, a doctor distressed by the lack symmetry in a one legged patient, may decide to restore the symmetry by removing the other leg, rather than enabling some walking capability by providing the patient with a prosthetic.
Similarly for the injustices in our past that face us now, I need to ask “What kind of society do I want to live in? What would make it fair and just? For me, asking this question, removes from consideration many options which simply implement new injustices to make up for old ones.
If you haven’t read Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World, I suggest you give it a try. I think it was first published in 1910 (some say 1900 but I think that’s too early since Chesterton first began writing books in 1900) yet it seems prophetic and anticipates so many questions facing us today.
I have previously published my review of Peter Kreeft’s excellent book, Back to Virtue. In this post I wanted to provide a more personal view of how the book changed or perhaps broadened my thinking. At one point, Kreeft talked about how Christianity brought together the best of what Hebrew, Greek, and pagan thought and tradition had to offer. This is depicted in the diagram below (reworked to capture my own musings on this important idea from a similar diagram in the book).
The Hebrew Foundation
If one reads the New Testament, one can’t help but notice how Christianity is grounded on, and grew forth from Hebrew history, revelation, and practice. All of the very early Christians were Jewish. The Old Testament is cited again and again in the New. Even the Christians called out of Greek and pagan backgrounds were steeped in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. When Paul spoke in 2 Timothy 3:16 about “all scripture,” he was primarily referring to the Old Testament.
Jesus had to be born into Jewish society because they had a high view of God: his Oneness and His creation of the world out of nothing. Had Jesus been born in Athens, as pantheists and polytheists, they would have happily put Jesus alongside Zeus and so missed the whole point of the incarnation. The shocking incredulity of the Jewish mindset to the incarnation was absolutely necessary for us to get the message and import of what was taking place.
This Hebrew ground or environment for the incarnation did not come without cost or loss. As far as I can tell from my reading, the first century Jewish people were remarkably free of idolatry. A by-product of this achievement was a complete lack of development of some of the arts such as sculpting and painting because they were too closely associated with idol worship. Kreeft helped me realize how this temporary omissions were build back in to the Christian community after the significance of the incarnation and resurrection of Christ were recognized.
The Greek New Testament
The use of Koine Greek (the lingua franca of the Mediterranean and Middle East) as the language of the New Testament had profound consequences. Not only did it bring the Good News in the common language of the Roman Empire, but it could make use of the nuances of language and thought brought into Greek by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. So for example it enabled the distinction between the old nature (flesh – sarx) from body (soma), drawing a clear distinction between Gnosticism and Christian teaching by putting a high value on the body as well as the spirit (Gnosticism values only the spirit). It also made God-guided reason an important way of testing truth claims and made reason an integral part of understanding teaching.
When viewed as a religious system, pagan polytheism was simply a branch of pantheism. But pagan practice had given rise to stories, plays, and poetry that showed a wonderful imagination and a longing for truth. Here again, it seems to me Christianity was able to keep the good. Much if not all of the ancient literature was preserved by the Church as the Roman Empire collapsed and the anarchy of the Dark Ages replaced it. The use of imagination as an engine of the written arts and also of science has played a significant role and life of the church.
So What Does This Mean to Me?
Kreeft’s analysis and synthesis has allowed me to see a number of things in a new way. Here are some of them:
1. God is always working toward the summum bonum, the greatest good.
2. Sometimes because of our weakness and frailty, we miss out on some things as the Israelites did as they were learning to avoid idolatry and so gave up some of the arts. These temporary omissions are part of our growing process.
3. In the end all genuine good comes from God and we as his people are not wrong to seek it. You cannot go far wrong if one truly seeks the good.
4. My own Christian walk is founded on my personal interaction with the Lord Christ through His received word and His Spirit. Imagination and reason play an important role in that interaction.
Note Added on “Reason”
In The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, Kreeft points out the differences in the way the word “reason” was used by Aquinas and how it’s used by modern philosophers. Aquinas and other ancients used reason to denote knowing, judging, as well logical processes such as inductive and deductive analysis. Modern philosophers, according to Kreeft, tend to use it only in the third sense.
This is another thoughtful book from Peter Kreeft with many valuable insights. Of particular significance to me was his observation (and my realization) that our society speaks of “having values” rather than “pursuing virtue.” This crafting of our language supports the subliminal indoctrination that channels us into believing or even espousing the idea the “the good or what is right” is not a real quantity like the natural laws but rather is made up or invented by people. Kreeft calls us back to pursuing virtue and abandoning the relativism that plagues us with moral equivocation. He sums up this idea by stating that society cannot long exist without virtue and virtue cannot long exist without religion.
A second important insight for me had to do with the strands of thought and practice that were brought together in Christianity. He argued that as Christianity built on it’s Jewish foundation, wrote it’s ideas using the Greek language and gradually brought more and more gentiles under it’s wing, it brought together three strands: conscience from Judaism, reason from the Greeks, and imagination from the pagan gentiles to craft the fabric of the faith.
Having said that, I will read this book over and over again because of the powerful and significant ideas it advances. I am less enthusiastic about the writing style. Kreeft often uses short sentences and the ideas do not flow well but rather come out like a machine gun barrage. I overlook the stylistic deficiencies because of the content.
I enjoy re-reading books. As a rule of thumb, after reading a new book, I’ll go back to revisit one I’ve read before. Recently I had a chance to re-read Isaac Asimov’s classic Science Fiction trilogy Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation.
I have been reading these books since high school. Although the books haven’t changed, I have and so has society around me and this observation is really behind today’s commentary on the series.
In the trilogy, Asimov imagines Homo Sapiens spread throughout the Milky Way galaxy participating in a galaxy-wide empire run by Trantor. This empire has existed for 16,000 years and is thought to last forever. The new science of psychohistory is able to predict the inevitable actions of large groups of people (an interesting metaphor for some theological reconciliations of predestination and free will) and Hari Seldon, the originator of psychohistory, predicts anarchy as the empire inexorably disintegrates. Seldon plans to mitigate the interregnum from 30,000 years of anarchy to 1000 years. That sets the stage for the formation of the Foundation at the fringe of the galaxy. You’ll have to read the book to find out what happens.
What interested me in this reading was a simple statement that came about in the dialogue between Sermak and Bort who were discussing Salvor Hardin’s (Mayor of Terminus, the Foundation home world) use of a technology-based religion to control neighboring worlds (Bort and Sermak are dissidents). Bort is asked what kind of religion is it? He says (p95, first Avon printing):
[Sermak] “But what kind of religion is it Bort?”
Bort considered. “Ethically it’s fine. It scarcely varies from the various philosophies of the old Empire. High moral standards and all that. There’s nothing to complain about from that viewpoint. Religion is one of the great civilizing influences of history [italics mine] and in that respect, it’s fulfilling—”
When I read that statement “Religion is one of the great civilizing influences of history” written by Asimov in 1951, I wondered how we as a society have moved from “great civilizing influences of history” to the twenty first century mantra that “religion ruins everything?” After all our history hasn’t changed and the actual facts of church history known today are substantially the same as those Asimov’s considered in 1951.
As I thought about this, I realized our perspective has changed because the reporting on religious history, particularly the history of the Christian Church has changed. In Asimov’s time, as in ours, there were many aspects of the history that were positive, and others that were terrible. What has changed? Where we focus our camera and where we place our microphone as we report on the past has changed.
William Tyndale was burned at the stake (after being strangled) at the age of 42 on October 6, 1536 in Vilvoorde, near Brussels. His crime? Translating the Bible into English so that people could read the scriptures for themselves.
Tyndale’s execution (according to Foxe) was witnessed by the attorney and doctors of Louvain who then moved off to complete their day.
So what’s my point? One’s perspective on this story depends on where you point the camera and hold the microphone. I think in 1951, the camera and the microphone were pointed at William Tyndale, who’s love for freedom and the truth motivated him to risk and lose his life in a translation project that would give others the chance to read the Bible for themselves—an example of religion’s civilizing influence.
What about today? We point the camera and microphone at the religious power brokers—the attorney and the doctors who set up the execution. But that’s the difficulty. History is a mixture of power, politics, noble aspirations, courage, conviction, and tragedy. The message we receive from history depends on where we point the camera and how we use the images. Curiously today, we have a secular perspective that completely dissociates itself from any of these historical actions because they are presumed to be religiously (and not politically) motivated and from our modern perspective, thankfully we’re through our religious phase. The net result is a general villainization of religion in our culture.
An accurate reading of history compels a much more balanced view, a view that does not assume that modern secularists don’t have their own injustices that they foist on their own political and ideological opponents, particularly the religious. History, if we read it properly, will help us to avoid acts of injustice on our part, not just inflict them on a new target group.
To me this is one of the reasons for re-reading older books—it let’s me see the world through the eyes of someone from a different culture than my own, and lets me discover some of the assumptions that make up my own perspective.
Thanks for reading,