Saint Irenaeus and the Vale of Soul-Making

The problem of evil – of reconciling suffering in the world with a good God who is both omnipotent and omniscient – is the strongest argument that can be posed to the religious believer; perhaps even the only one which has any real abiding force. The study of this problem is itself a notoriously difficult one, not only because of the perceived opposition between the goodness of the Creator and the suffering of His creatures, but also because to try and explain how this can be so is in some sense to trivialise it – we can, ultimately, never really say that suffering, especially great suffering, is justified; we can only attempt to show how it can be understood in a wider context.

So I think it important to stress at the outset that this problem does always remain, to a great extent, mysterious, and that there is no way in which I, or anyone else, can ‘explain away’ suffering – to do so is essentially impossible, given that we do not and cannot know the Mind of God, and also immoral, in that a complete explanation, even if it could be found, would tend to minimise the real lived experience of those who suffer. However, having said that, to try and make sense of our suffering is not the same thing as explaining it away, and theodicy – the attempt to respond to the problem of evil – is a just endeavour, and also necessary, if we are to give a reasonable account of the Faith.

Out of the many theories which have developed within the school of theodicy over the ages, there is one that particularly appeals to me, because of its respect for human freedom, its honest appraisal of the reality of suffering and God’s ultimate responsibility for it as Creator of all that is (as opposed to theories which aim to diminish God’s responsibility through secondary causes), and its recognition of the genuinely creative work that God’s grace can effect through our suffering. The theory in question is the Irenaean theodicy, named after Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (130 – 200), who provided the basic outline of the theory (but which has been developed further by later thinkers – Richard Swinburne being a notable contemporary exponent).

Saint Irenaeus provided a sketch of the theory in his (relatively) short summary of salvation history, entitled The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, in which he gave brief descriptions of Creation, the Fall, the history of Israel, and the events of the New Covenant. The section which provides the basis for the theodicy which is named after Irenaeus is quite early on (pre-Fall) in this treatise, and is as follows:

Now, having made man lord of the earth and all things in it, He secretly appointed him lord also of those who were servants in it. They however were in their perfection; but the lord, that is, man, was (but) small; for he was a child; and it was necessary that he should grow, and so come to (his) perfection. And, that he might have his nourishment and growth with festive and dainty meats, He prepared him a place better than this world, excelling in air, beauty, light, food, plants, fruit, water, and all other necessaries of life, and its name is Paradise. And so fair and good was this Paradise, that the Word of God continually resorted thither, and walked and talked with the man, figuring beforehand the things that should be in the future, (namely) that He should dwell with him and talk with him, and should be with men, teaching them righteousness. But man was a child, not yet having his understanding perfected; wherefore also he was easily led astray by the deceiver.

Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, XII.

            There are other passages in Saint Irenaeus’ writings, most notably in Adversus Haereses (Book VI, Chapter XXXIX) where he talks about man’s ability to distinguish (and therefore choose) between good and evil, and God’s coaxing us towards holiness, as the potter moulds the clay. But the passage above is the clearest example of what the Irenaean theodicy is in essence, particularly as it describes man’s state before the Fall. The central import of the passage is that man is created as good, but incomplete, and so it is necessary that ‘he should grow, and so come to his perfection’. What Irenaeus is driving at here, and in other similar passages, is that there is a very real need for us to grow into our true selves – to learn our way into holiness.

Irenaeus does not see this as being in conflict with what happens in the Fall – his view of man as incomplete, of ‘not yet having his understanding perfected’ is perfectly compatible with what we believe about Original Sin. The Fall of Adam is a matter of human pride and of lack of trust in God, and it is perfectly possible that Adam would have continued to grow in understanding and in love had he not sinned. To recognise this is also to see something important about the Irenaean theodicy, namely that it is not concerned so much with where evil comes from; rather it assumes that it exists (and, for Irenaeus at least, as well as other orthodox interpreters, assumes Original Sin as part of its cause) and then goes on to deal with the bigger problem of how to reconcile its existence with God’s essential goodness.

Having recognised that mankind needs to grow into his role as God’s image-bearer and vice-regent on earth, this view then sees the world as a ‘vale of soul making’ (a term that comes from John Keats) – an environment which is good in the sense that it is equipped with all the necessary means for bringing forth life, sustenance, and all manner of things to nourish and fulfil the human soul, but which is also necessarily subject to change. On this latter point, it is rather difficult to imagine a plausible material world that could exist freely (i.e.; without constant acts of interventionary maintenance by its Creator), in time and space according to regular laws of motion etc, without the subsequent problems that result from different entities and processes existing in the same environment. Other worlds are possible, but not really plausible.

In this world then, we must respond freely to the situations that arise in such an environment, and in doing so, will inevitably be presented with situations where, despite living our lives rightly, bad things will happen to us – either as a result of other people freely choosing to do evil, or of a combination of those many different processes that exist in our time-bound, contingent and complex material world. If we lived in a world where there was a one-to-one relationship between good deeds and rewards, and between bad deeds and punishments, then it would be impossible to be virtuous, let alone to grow in virtue. People would do good things just to get rewarded, and avoid doing evil just to avoid punishment.

Instead, and this is part of what the Irenaean theodicy is trying to say, the world we live in is the best possible world for us, in the sense that we can become virtuous people in it – we can grow in virtue for its own sake. This is not to say that the world is absolutely perfect, and that all suffering is therefore justified because of this possibility – again, justification of suffering is out of the question – it is only to recognise that free creatures destined for Heaven cannot learn how to live there in circumstances other than these. This – our final destination – is another key point, as it is very difficult to discuss the ‘point’ of any ethics without a final goal in sight. ‘What is the end to which you are doing it?’ is the question that has to be asked of any moral act. Our end is to be the sort of people that can live with God, and this means to be the sort of people that love for love’s sake – freely and without ulterior motive.

This, I think, is the main thing that recommends the Irenaean theodicy – it affirms our freedom, and also the fact that, whilst it is not the ultimate will of God that we suffer, in creating a world subject to change He produced an arena in which the outworkings of that freedom (both ours and the processes of creation at large) can be used to draw something good out of it – the development of our souls towards holiness. However, there are two main criticisms that can be brought against this theory – the first being that there are many situations in which suffering does not lead people to greater holiness, but actually makes them worse, and also that it implies it is somehow preferable to have evil in our lives; that we need evil to become good.

A reply to the first part of this objection would be that the theory is not meant to suggest that every single person will be made good through suffering, but that generally speaking moral good can be brought out of difficult situations. If every situation led to increased virtue, we would have a repeat of the one-to-one reward system, which would undermine virtue overall. The second part of the objection has more force, and the only response to give here is to refer back to the Garden of Eden – according to Irenaeus, we would have always been growing in learning anyway; it is just that now God has to make use of a greater amount of conflict and decay (as well as an extraordinary increase in moral evil) in the world that there would have been.

The second criticism of the Irenaean theodicy is that there are some acts of suffering that are so overwhelming that all the suffering person can do is be knocked back by it – that there is no opportunity for growth in virtue because the sufferer does not, indeed cannot, think of anything other than getting through the pain, or the darkness, or both. In response to this, it is important to acknowledge that even in great moments of suffering, there may sometimes be more purification going on than we recognise, or than the person suffering can appreciate until afterwards. Having said this though, it is clearly also true that this is often not the case, and that extreme suffering does no more than rip the heart out of us.

In these situations, I think that the only really sensible thing we can say is to admit the mystery – that this is the point where no more can be said, and we have to simply allow for the limitations of our finite understanding. When we have done this though, there is still somewhere we can turn to – the Cross of Christ. Our Lord did not come to explain the why of suffering – He too assumed it as something that was part of the data which we have to deal with – instead He came to enter into it, and stand alongside us, showing us both how much He loves us and also that this is a world that He feels is worth fighting for; that, despite what it may sometimes feel like, all this free will and free creation business is worth it because of what He has in store for us afterwards.

Ultimately it all keeps coming back to two things – our free will, and the end for which we were created. God could have created us like the other animals – just going about our business, without self-reflection or any ability to commune with Him – but, as much as I am sure God loves all His creatures, a creation consisting only of the other animals would be the equivalent of our building a model railway; a source of pleasure, but not able to give anything back of itself. Similarly, we could have been created as we are, but without free will, but apart from the fact that is nigh on impossible to imagine how we would be able to reason and create (given that these depend so greatly on our free will) in this scenario, what is most certain is that we would not be able to love.

God is Love, and He created us so that we might love as He does – that we might become ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4) and thereby spread His love abroad in new ways, through something that is other than Him. Instead of a train set, or a cohort of automatons, He created us, as the pinnacle of His creation at large, to be miniature versions of Himself, sons and daughters of God, all bearing the family mark of self-giving love (c.f.; John 13:35; 1 John 4:8,16). It is indeed a great mystery as to why there is suffering in this world, but we know, through Christ and His Holy Cross, upon which He preached the pre-eminent sermon on love, that love and its increase is His aim.

Given that it seems the only way for free creatures such as ourselves to learn the habit of the virtues and to allow for love to work through us, is via some form of trial and testing, then it seems to me that the Irenaean theodicy is the least cruel of all theodicies. It does not try to absolve God of responsibility, or explain away why there is suffering in the world – instead it places our suffering in the context of our final end, which is Love, and of the weight of glory which we are being trained for. By placing suffering in this context, it also finally refers us back to the Cross of Christ, which, in times when the suffering is too hard to bear, is our mainstay – a firm anchor from which we receive the knowledge that He has been and is here with us no matter what, and that, despite what it may seem like today, Love is real, and always holds a future for us.

Love Your Enemies: The Hardest of Many Hard Sayings

‘You have heard that it was said “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy”. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.’

There are many hard sayings of Christ, and many paths laid out for us in this life by His Church that are difficult to reconcile with our increasingly permissive culture, but the passage above from Matthew (5:43-45) is, whilst deeply familiar to (and even treasured by) many, perhaps one of the hardest teachings of them all – a fact testified to by the infrequency with which it is actually observed in day to day life.

To be a Christian is to follow the will of Christ; to know this will, and its applications for various aspects of our lives, we have the voice of His Church to guide us. Recognition of the Church’s authority to do this is a perennial source of disagreement, both amongst non-Catholic denominations, and within the Church itself. The disagreements within the Church are mostly regarding a small group of teachings on marriage and sexual morality, and it is in this area that the Church is most often said to deliver ‘hard’ teachings. However, true as it may be that it is indeed increasingly difficult to live a faithful Catholic life in a culture that is becoming more and more hostile to traditional positions on sexual ethics, the really hard teaching of Our Lord has nothing to do with the hostility of our culture, but has always been difficult to accept.

To love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us, is not, despite what many of us may have subtly persuaded ourselves of in the past, an optional charge, or in any way just for those who are more advanced in the spiritual life – there are teachings or ways of life which are reserved for those called to the monastic vocation (the evangelical counsels, for example) but this is not one of them. Yet, many of us, not explicitly, but in a very shrewd and delicate way, justify to ourselves the idea that loving our enemies is only something which, if we do not reserve it for a select group, will be possible when we have arrived at an indefinite point in our own spiritual life – i.e.; it is not something to worry about today.

The reason that we so marginalise this teaching is precisely because it is a hard saying, and it is easier to put it on a pedestal than to practice it. As to the reason that we do not want to practice it, this may have something to do with the common assumption that religion is about how we feel. It is perfectly natural that we do not want to love our enemies, or do not feel like praying for those who persecute us (or, by implication, those who persecute our brethren), but this is not what love, in the Christian sense, means at all – it is not about trying to cultivate a particular emotion, it is about willing the good of another. The ongoing process of growing in holiness is about purifying our wills so that we progressively will the good of all, just as God does – it is about conforming our wills to His, so that we may truly become ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4).

When we see Our Lord’s command in the light of our growing closer to God’s nature we should not expect it to be anything else but hard. The growing tendency to see Christianity in a therapeutic or emotional context is a pervasive one, but it has nothing to do with authentic faith, and must be combated from within – which of course means that it must be combated principally by prayer. A good way of paving the way for this though, is to look at the context in which Christ Himself puts it – He says that to love our enemies is to truly be ‘sons of your Father who is in heaven’ who ‘makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good’.

We are to love people indiscriminately, just as God gives the gift of life and sustenance to all people. God does not check first to see whether someone is a good person before He provides them with air, sunlight, food and drink, etc – all these things are delivered to the just and the unjust; we must, if we are to become true children of God, do likewise. If we complain that it is hard for us to will the good for people who do us great evil, or who we find insufferable, it is perhaps a good thing to bring to mind in these moments just how insufferable we all must be to God much of the time, how many of our sins cry out to Heaven, and that He yet still wills the good of each one of us.

Another important point here is that God sees the evil that all men do, including our own. So, when we consider God’s universal Providence, this might also give us pause to consider that, just as we may find it hard to love others who have done us harm or who we do not like, that there are people out there to whom we have done harm, and who find us very difficult to get along with as well. It is of course much easier to explain away faults in ourselves than in others, to see the speck in our brother’s eye but not to notice the log in our own (c.f.; Matthew 7:1-5), but this is precisely why we need a Saviour, and why Our Lord has issued us the commandments that He has done.

If we want to call ourselves Christians, this means doing the will of Christ. Furthermore, doing His means doing all of it, not just the bits we find agreeable. Those who pick and choose which bits of the Church’s social teaching to accept and which to ignore based on how it fits into their lives are manifestly not fulfilling this obligation, but we all fail in this regard who do not take Our Lord’s commandment to love our enemies seriously. This is far from the passing of judgement on my own account, as I am foremost amongst those who fail in this respect (as well as in a great many others); rather it is a call to myself and to all who seek to love Jesus Christ more, that we must honestly examine to what degree we have exchanged our own wills for the One we know to be Lord.

 N. B. For an inspiring story of someone who took this teaching of Our Lord (and the whole spirit of the Sermon on the Mount) very seriously, and of what can be achieved by taking this path, please read this article by Peter Strzelecki Rieth on Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko.

Saint Rafael Arnaiz Baron: Desiring God

Following on from my recent post on Saint Augustine, in which the subject of our innate desire for God and concomitant reluctance to allow this desire to flourish was discussed, I would like to look today to a passage from the writings of Saint Rafael Arnaiz Baron for a corroboration of this tendency we have to place obstacles in the way of our own instinctive need for communion with our Maker. Saint Rafael, who did not live long, but lived a life of deep sensitivity to the grace of God and of humankind’s response to it, writes here very powerfully of our habitual disinclination to meet the call given to us to follow Christ and fulfil his commandments steadfastly and devotedly.

We are, as the Catechism says, all ‘called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity’, and all the members of the Church are to ‘wholeheartedly devote themselves to the glory of God and to the service of their neighbour’ (2013). Yet we frequently fail in even the basic fulfilments of our obligations and the cultivation of virtue. The principal reason for this is because we do not desire sanctity, and therefore instead fill our lives with distractions so that we will not encounter the Holy Spirit who dwells within us (c.f.; 1 Corinthians 3:16):

We lack virtue not because it’s difficult, but be-cause we don’t wish for it. We lack patience because we don’t want it. We lack moderation and chastity for the same reason. If we were to wish it we would become saints; it’s much more difficult to be an engineer than to be a saint. If only we had faith…

…Interior life, life of spirit, life of prayer. My God that is what must be hard! It isn’t so. Remove the im-pediment from your heart and there you will find God. Everything is now done. Many times we go looking for what isn’t there, and on the other hand pass by a treasure and don’t see it. This happens to us with God, whom we seek… through a jungle of things which, the more complicated they are, the better they appear to us. And yet we carry God within the heart, and don’t look for Him there. Retire within yourself, look at your nothingness, at the nothingness of the whole world, place yourself at the foot of the Cross, and if you are guileless you will see God…

…If God is not there in our souls sometimes, it’s because we don’t wish it. We have so many affairs on hand, distractions, predilections, vain desires, presumptions, so much of the world within us, that God withdraws Himself; but it is sufficient to love Him, for God fills the soul in such a way that one must be blind not to see it. Does a soul wish to live according to God? Let it cast out everything that is not Him, and then it is achieved. It is relatively easy. If we were to wish for it, and if we were to ask God with simplicity, we should make great advances in the spiritual life. If we were to wish it we would become saints, but we are so stupid that we don’t want it, we would rather waste our time over foolish vanities.

Excerpt from Saint Rafael’s writings courtesy of Daily Gospel.

            The Church provides us with many means to grow in love for God, and to grow in holiness – the sacraments, the writings of the saints, sacramentals, prayers, devotionals and pilgrimages, various lay apostolates that we can involve ourselves in. We may or may not opt to use some or all of these things at our discretion, but what is certain is that the degree to which we do make use of these many means of growing closer to God and neighbour is dependent on one central thing – our desire. This is the simple truth at the heart of our Faith, that, as Saint Rafael says, ‘if we were to wish it, and if we were to ask God with simplicity, we should make great advances in the spiritual life’ – or, as Our Lord put it, ‘ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it will be opened to you’ (Matthew 7:7).

The distractions of the world are many in number, and great in variety – many of them are good in and of themselves, and it is not given to everyone to renounce all the things of this life (though of course some are called to a life where this will be the case). However, it is the task of all of us, if we wish to grow in relationship with God, to prioritise our desires; to put God first in our affections, and to, in that sense, ‘cast out everything that is not Him’. When our attitude is such that the things of the world are only important to us relative to this desire for God, then they will be returned to us, and enjoyed by us all the more.

If however, we put God second to the things of this world, they will not satisfy, and we will only desire more of them – this can only result in our natural desire for God being thwarted and misdirected, and also our desire for things becoming master over us. No one can serve two masters (c.f.; Matthew 6:24) and so we must look deep into ourselves and recognise not only who, out of God and the world, has the greater claim on us, but who, in our innermost depths, do we truly desire the most. When we answer this question truthfully, then there is only one more thing left to do – to make the fulfilment of this desire a reality. As Saint Rafael says, ‘retire within yourself…place yourself at the foot of the Cross, and if you are guileless you will see God.

The Venerable Bede: A Hymn to Saint John the Baptist

On this day where we remember the martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist, here is a beautiful hymn by Saint Bede the Venerable, in which the great Doctor examines John’s death in light of the whole shape and purpose of his life – that of being the one who goes before Our Lord. As the Baptist was a forerunner in life, so he was in death, and the words of Saint Bede’s hymn speak movingly of the deep interconnection between the way Saint John lived his life and the way in which he gave it up, and of the great inner freedom that comes from authentic faith in God – a freedom that remains in even the most trying of circumstances.

May we pray that our lives show the same integrity as Saint John the Baptist, and that we remain true to the same witness he bore in his life and death – a witness which we all are called to uphold. May we also pray, in remembering the Baptist’s martyrdom, for all those faithful Christians in Iraq who continue to bear great suffering in and for the name of Our Lord – their witness, and the witness of Saint John the Baptist, is a tragic but compelling reminder to us all of us as to where our true allegiances lie, and how this should be reflected in every aspect of our lives:

 

The great forerunner of grace and messenger of truth,

John the Baptist, Christ’s shining torch,

Now becomes the preacher of eternal Light.

The prophetic witness that he never ceased to show

In his message, life, and all his mighty works,

Is signed today by the blood of his martyrdom.

 

He always went before his Lord:

In birth he declared his coming to the world;

By his baptism of sinners in the Jordan

He foretold the one by whom baptism would be instituted;

And by shedding his blood for him with love,

John the Baptist also experienced beforehand

The death of Christ our Savior, who gave life to the world.

 

A cruel tyrant may well conceal him in a prison, bound with irons,

Yet in Christ such chains could never bind a man

Whose heart in freedom opens to the Kingdom.

How could the darkness and torments of a dungeon dim

Gain mastery over one who sees Christ’s glory

And receives from him the Holy Spirit’s gifts?

Willingly he gives his head to the executioner’s sword;

How could he lose his head

Whose Head is Christ?

 

Happy is he who wins today his forerunner’s title

By his departure from this world of ours.

Today his death proclaims what he testified while living:

Christ who comes and now is here.

Could hell hold fast the messenger who escapes it?

The just, the prophets and the martyrs are full of joy

As they go with him to meet the Savior.

All surround John with their praises and their love

And, with him, beg Christ to come at last to those who are his own

 

O great forerunner of the Redeemer, he delays no longer

Who sets you free from death for evermore.

Led by your Lord,

Enter into glory with the saints!

 

Courtesy of Daily Gospel

The Abiding Relevance of Saint Augustine

As today is Saint Augustine’s feast day, and he is one of my favourite saints, I have spent the last few days trying to decide which aspect of his teaching represented him the best, and so what to focus on in writing about him. I considered the breadth and depth of his writings – on grace, love, the Church and its divine authority, the Eucharist, the sacraments in general, the relationship between the Church and the surrounding culture, the nature of God and His omniscience, the Incarnation. But the process of trying to decide what feature of his teaching to present was too daunting – Saint Augustine wrote too much, and on too many subjects, for his thought to be adequately summarised in one single blog post, least of all by me.

Nevertheless, I do think that there is a common core of Augustine’s thought, a foundational impulse of sorts, to which we can look if we want to understand this great Doctor of the Church, and which has an ongoing relevance for all ages. The essence of this impulse is encapsulated in two of his most famous sayings, the first of which is:

Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.

Confessions of Saint Augustine, Book I, Chapter I.

The second passage, which is in a sense an outworking and elaboration of what is written above, describes the sense in which this restlessness that Augustine found within himself was drawn out by God – the way in which the saint was gradually drawn away from the things of the world and his own tendency for self-justification, and towards God Himself:

Belatedly I loved thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new, belatedly I loved thee. For see, thou wast within and I was without, and I sought thee out there. Unlovely, I rushed heedlessly among the lovely things thou hast made. Thou wast with me, but I was not with thee. These things kept me far from thee; even though they were not at all unless they were in thee. Thou didst call and cry aloud, and didst force open my deafness. Thou didst gleam and shine, and didst chase away my blindness. Thou didst breathe fragrant odours and I drew in my breath; and now I pant for thee. I tasted, and now I hunger and thirst. Thou didst touch me, and I burned for thy peace.

ibid, Book X, Chapter XXVII.

            In these two excerpts I believe we can truly see the heart of Saint Augustine’s thought, belief and devotion. He was a man who sought unrelentingly for Truth, and who, in his Confessions, explored his own personal journey by searching for it in ways that display a profound understanding of human psychology and the innate impulse for God that resides within us all. This impulse, which with Augustine did not start out as a desire for God per se, but for the True, the Good and the Beautiful, is one that people in all ages should be able to identify with, and his exploration of the yearning for these three, which led ultimately to their identification with God, provides a compelling reason for belief – one which confirms the path of purely rational argument, but goes beyond it, to the depths of our very being.

Our persons do not just consist of intellect, and far less do they consist of a kind of disembodied, impersonal reason that one gets the impression many non-believers of a particular stripe appeal to today. We are also creatures of will, and our wills are seldom (if ever) commanded by the reason alone, but are directed by a complex mixture of rationality, affection, and imagination. Saint Augustine’s recognition that within this complex mixture that makes up each one of us is a deep desire for God, and that this desire is something that emanates from the whole person, moreover from the very heart of the person, is an important corrective to the idea that we can simply reason our way to belief (though again, this is not to discount the role of reason in that process).

That our hearts are ‘restless, until they find their rest in thee’ is something that Augustine, through a penetrating analysis of his own experience and reflection on the experiences common to others, saw as a basic fact of existence. There is a desire for God that will not go away, and cannot, no matter what we tell ourselves, be written off as just wishful thinking. This desire commends itself to our will, conscience and intellect as something that reaches out to ultimate reality itself, to the source and ground of our very being, and thus it is something that, if not allowed to express itself naturally, will be misdirected to lower things, either things sinful in and of themselves, or ‘the lovely things thou hast made’.

That the existence of God is the final end of all our creaturely endeavour, and that recognition of not only His existence, but His sovereignty over us is to accept our proper place in the order of things and so give us lasting peace, is not something that gains much currency in contemporary Western culture. However, having spent a great deal of time with non-believing friends and family, as well as being witness to some bizarre and frenzied invective against religious believers online, as well as frequent wilful misrepresentation of what believers have said or actually believe, I am gradually coming to the conclusion that a lot of the reasons given for atheism are not reasons at all, but excuses designed to obscure that innate desire for and knowledge of God that Saint Augustine describes.

Recognising the existence of God is to recognise that we are not masters of our own destiny, and that we are beholden to a standard of conduct that we cannot alter but must simply submit to, and it seems that a lot of atheism, as well as the popularity of moral relativism, is down to this. Again, reasons are presented, and we may differ about the viability of these reasons ad infinitum, getting nowhere with it. But what is constant in the unbelief I have encountered is a deep resentment that God should exist, as opposed to a purely rational conviction that He doesn’t. The hostility of so many atheists is due to the fact that deep down, they are aware of what Augustine witnessed to in his Confessions, and that, if they open the door to God just a little, they might then find themselves saying ‘I tasted, and now I hunger and thirst’.

This is not just a problem for non-believers. Many Christians spend a great deal of time distracting themselves, and this is in great part because we know that to spend some quality time before the Lord will result in His uncovering our lack of virtue, our lack of faith, our weaknesses and sinful tendencies – we do not want to be exposed before the light, so we hide from Him. The innate knowledge of God – of who He is and what consequent obligations are placed on us as creatures – will not go away, and nor will our desire for Him. But we can mask this with many things, and such masking is at the root of much of our frivolity, as well as much of our despair. Having suppressed a natural desire for the one thing we know can give us lasting happiness, we either lose ourselves in trivia, or are left to face the schism we have caused in our souls.

Saint Augustine realised also that ultimately, whilst we can reason to a knowledge that God exists, and that He is the source of all Goodness and Truth, it requires an act of the will in order to have faith in Him – because to have faith does not just mean to assent to an idea, but to trust in and submit to God. Augustine recognised that it was not enough for him to believe who God is and that He exists – he must also change his life, and this meant giving up the tendency to pride which we all share. He would ask God to be made chaste, but not yet, and this request is played out again and again in the lives of those who refuse to believe at all, and those of us who believe but do not want to accept the change in life that follows.

Augustine’s recognition that within each of us there is a deep desire for God, and that the world around us – the awe we feel before creation, the call of our conscience, the desire to know Truth – speaks to us of Him, that ‘day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge…their words to the end of the world’ (Psalm 19:2,4), can speak to each generation, because it is a constant feature of human experience. New arguments for God’s existence (and arguments to the contrary) appear, or old ones are refined; the Church produces new saints, and continues to consist of sinners; fads come then pass, and new ideas grip the public imagination. But the desire for ultimate things, the intuitive sense we all have that this life is meaningful, that Truth and Goodness exist objectively, and that these intimations find their resolution in God, does not pass.

People will always reject God, and will always suppress the desire for Him, finding new and various ways to do so, because with the desire we all have for that ‘Beauty so ancient and so new’ comes the knowledge that to meet Him and give ourselves to Him also means to change our lives, to give up our false ideas of autonomy and put away whatever pet sins we might have. The writings of Saint Augustine though, are a powerful testimony to the force of this desire, to the fact that, whilst it can be misdirected it can never be killed, and also to the relentless desire of God that we do finally find our rest in Him.

Woman and the Miracle of Creation

It is a miracle, indeed the first and greatest of all miracles, that any of us are alive, or that anything exists at all. Existence is a mysterious thing, and we only have to seriously reflect on non-existence to affirm life’s tremendous gratuity and the marvellous nature of being. Furthermore, we humans do not only exist, but are living beings, and, above other living beings, have the ability to reflect upon our existence, to consider these questions and weigh up what it might all mean – we are conscious beings, a part of existence which can consider what existence means. While living beings have a special place within creation though, and human beings a unique place amongst living beings, woman has an even more exalted place still.

In an article from The Imaginative Conservative, Peter Strzelecki Reith, writing about Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris, considers towards the end of his piece the particular marvel of femininity, and relates it to the wider miracle of creation. He also goes further than this however, and points out that in the fecundity of woman, we have a paradigmatic case of how life is brought forth from death, how the seed that falls into the ground brings forth new life:

…there is something unique about women, as the only creatures in the tapestry of known conscious life to not only be heading towards death, like the rest of mankind, but to also be incubators of the passage from non-being to being, from a kind of death to life. Within the body of a woman, the miracle of creation, of consciousness coming to be from unconscious matter, is played out…

…This phenomenon is not, however, something outside of her, it is not a phenomenon of Other-hood, or Other-liness. For the consciousness of the Other which grows within her is at once a part of her. This experience, unique to woman-as-human, is incomprehensible to man. It cannot be conveyed in words, it cannot be explained, it is totally and forever outside the realm of masculine phenomenology. It is a small secret of the universe known by woman as phenomenon. Woman is not only the being which carries mystery in her body—she is the conscious life who experiences mystery as a physical phenomenon unknowable to man. Just as Jesus passed through Death into Eternal Life via the Mystery of God, so the consciousness that arises within the woman passes through the death of non-being into the eternal life of being conscious—only here the intermediary is not God; distant, all powerful, omnipotent—the intermediary is woman. We might, returning to the above noted subject of the resurrection, adjust our initial thought, according to which the prejudice of the times held that woman—irrational women—were by nature more fit to witness the irrational resurrection of Christ on account of their lower intellect. Perhaps it is not low intellect, but rather the physical capacity to act as a conscious, experiencing incubator for the transformation of non-being into being that gives women the special sensitivity to have been the first to witness the risen God? Perhaps for woman, the Mystery is not “over there” but in them, a part of them—they themselves?

Whilst all humankind experiences the mystery of existence and conscious being to some degree, women are actually given the privilege of the very mystery of creation taking place within them – the bringing forth of conscious life from non-being; where there was previously only one life, now there is another residing within. This is a kind of microcosm, even (one could say) a living parable of God’s perennial work of creation from nothing, through various stages of existence, into fully conscious, self-reflective being. In this sense then, woman has been chosen as the crown of God’s creative work, insofar as each woman enacts over and again a miniature re-telling of His handiwork.

This is not only a confirmation of the unique place of woman within creation of course, but a confirmation of the holy treasure that she carries within her – life. God’s choosing woman to re-present His creative work in this way is an affirmation of the goodness of all life, and especially of the sanctity of human life. This of course reinforces Catholic teaching on issues like abortion and euthanasia, but it also sheds some light on the wider question of the equality of the sexes, and authentic femininity. To affirm that woman has an especial place in the world, and that this is because of her role as bringer of life, as nurturer and carer, also affirms her difference from man, and gives us pause to reflect on what is essentially different about the sexes.

God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them’ reads Genesis 1:27, which tells us that men and women are equal in dignity, both created in God’s image, which means that they both share in His reason, His freedom, and His love. They are however, created as distinct from one another, and, as Genesis 2:21-25 suggests, meant to complement one another, not try to equal each other by becoming the same in every respect. The role of woman as nurturer and bringer of life is the case in point here – whilst both sexes are involved in the act of procreation, it is only the woman that bears this new life within her, from whom the new human life receives its sustenance and by whom is given the time to grow in stature.

This is not to suggest that the only difference between men and women is that women can bear children and men cannot – it is rather to highlight that this is the main difference between the sexes, and that this central distinction is in some way emblematic of all the other ways in which women are different from men. Women are given towards particular virtues that men, generally speaking, are not (and I think that speaking generally is warranted here – unless one subscribes to the view that gender is a purely social construct, then there will be certain traits that are more typical for one sex than for another; this is not to say that exceptions do not occur), and I think that these virtues have their root in that ‘special sensitivity’ which comes from woman’s role as bringer of life.

Being the ones who bear life in their womb endows women with the virtue of humility, in that they must humble themselves before the mystery that they are capable of bringing forth within their bodies; the virtue of patience, because they must wait over a long period when this life is conceived and then grows within them; the virtue of selflessness, because the life of another requires their giving of the self in order that it may thrive; and the virtues of tenderness and receptivity, because to be able to nurture new life a caring and responsive touch, and a disposition that is open to new challenges is required. Again, this is not say that men may not display some or all of these virtues in part, but that women are particularly given to them, and this because of their unique roles in God’s work of creation.

Furthermore, these virtues, seen as weaknesses by our society, are shown to be strengths when seen in the light of the Gospel. Saint Paul writes that amongst the fruits of the Spirit are ‘peace, patience, kindness…gentleness, self-control’ (Galatians 5:22-23), and humility is an absolute cornerstone of what it means to follow Christ. In this sense then, women have a vocational and missionary role to the Church and the world in recalling us to these virtues, but in the proper context of our God-given complementarity in the midst of creation. The pre-eminent example of the way in which women can enact this role is of course Our Blessed Mother, the Virgin Mary. She, who bore in her womb not just conscious life, but Life itself, supremely lived out the above virtues, and in doing so pointed the way to her Son, the fount of all Goodness.

Authentic femininity then, is directly contrary to the ideology of feminism, which strives to collapse the distinctions between man and woman, and to reframe what it means to be feminine in terms of power*. The latter attitude flows from our fallen nature, which always seeks to define humanity in terms of a struggle for power, and particularly in asserting the power of man over the power of God (seen particularly within feminism in the undermining of woman’s natural and God-given role as life-giver through appeal to ‘rights’ over and against the unborn); whereas the former attitude not only flows from what we can see in nature, but corresponds to the deepest impulses of Christian revelation.

Thus, to look to Our Lady, who points towards God in Christ, is to see what it is to be truly feminine – just as Our Lord is the New Adam, she is the New Eve – and to have the mystery of female fertility and its place in the miracle of creation not only confirmed but raised to a higher level; a level which can act as a powerful sign in the world and recall us to our true place in the grand scheme of things, as well as the higher virtues which the Gospel calls us to. The role of woman is a blessed one indeed, and the attempts to reinterpret it in worldly terms not only diminishes the fairer sex, but buys into a wider program where might is right, and the haughty are exalted.

*For a good discussion of the way in which feminism can be contrasted with authentic femininity, and the former’s interpretation of what it means to be female in terms of power, see this excellent interview with Dr. Alice von Hildebrand.

C. S. Lewis on Transposition: The Meeting of Earthly and Heavenly Things

As a sort of addendum to my last post, in which I explored C. S. Lewis’ thoughts on the potency of scriptural imagery, and the role symbol and metaphor play in our knowing the world more generally, I would like today to focus on another essay of his, which deals with what he referred to as ‘transposition’. This term, usually used to refer to the writing of a piece of music in a different key to the original, is used by Lewis to describe any transference between different modes of experience, and ultimately, between earthly experiences or images, and heavenly ones, and it can shed a lot of light on what he has to say about scriptural imagery and the role of symbol, and why it is that Scripture uses such ‘earthy’ imagery to communicate divine truths.

In his essay (which is entitled Transposition), Lewis begins by examining the strange fact that the same physical sensations can accompany several qualitatively different types of experience – for example, that being in love can produce sensations that we also experience during rough sea travel, and that can also be induced by an intense aesthetic experience (Lewis uses as an example Samuel Pepys’ account of seeing Dekker and Massinger’s play The Virgin Martyr, which Pepys noted made him feel nauseous, in a way indistinguishable from how he felt when first in love with his wife, and yet that he also wanted to experience this nausea again, as he found it ‘ravishing’).

Some others will have experienced a flutter in the diaphragm, or perhaps mild vertigo, but the point is that the same physical sensation accompanies very different experiences – some welcome, others not. Lewis infers from this that this is because our emotional life is ‘higher’ than our physical life, in the sense that it is more varied and more subtle, and it is because our physical faculties are less rich and complex that the same sensations are employed by the body to attend and interpret different experiences. The correspondence between the emotional and the physical is not a one-to-one relationship, but instead like translating a language with a large number of vowel sounds into one with a smaller set of vowel characters.

Lewis’ contention is that this ‘transposition’ from richer to poorer modes is, like our interpretation of experience in metaphor and symbol, a common facet of our experience, and that this explains why religious experiences (e.g.; mysticism) and revelatory language (e.g.; scriptural imagery) are also so often described in familiar, even commonplace terms. The mystic or the inspired writer does so because they are transposing a richer, subtler, more varied life into a vocabulary that is constrained by the resources available to it. Lewis provides an analogy of this by examining our depiction of three-dimensional life in two-dimensional sketches, concluding that:

…we understand pictures only because we know and inhabit the three-dimensional world. If we can imagine a creature who perceived only two dimensions and yet could somehow be aware of the lines as he crawled over them on the paper, we shall easily see how impossible it would be for him to understand…

…And soon, I think, he would say, “You keep on telling me of this other world and its unimaginable shapes which you call solid. But isn’t it very suspicious that all the shapes which you offer me as images or reflections of the solid ones turn out on inspection to be simply the old two-dimensional shapes of my own world as I have always known it? Is it not obvious that your vaunted other world, so far from being the archetype, is a dream which borrows all its elements from this one?

Essay Collection: Faith, Christianity and the Church (2002), pp.271-272, Harper Collins.

            Thus, the complaint of the non-believing sceptic that all religious experience is to be discounted because it is described in earthly terms and so must surely be ‘just’ our projection of wishful thinking can be seen in a new light – the reason religious experiences and imagery (harps, gold, choirs, intensification of familiar experiences) are described in such terms is because this is the only means we have to describe anything, and we must make do with the tools at our disposal. It is not a surprise that humans do not know what angels know, and that we must describe even the most exalted of mystical experience in earthly terms:

Our problem was that in what claims to be our spiritual life all the elements of our natural life recur: and what is worse, it looks at first glance as if no other elements were present. We know see that if the spiritual is richer than the natural (as no one who believes in its existence would deny) then this is exactly what we should expect. And the sceptic’s conclusion that the so-called spiritual is really derived from the natural, that it is a mirage or projection or imaginary extension of the natural, is also exactly what we should expect; for, as we have seen, this is the mistake which an observer who knew only the lower medium would be bound to make in every case of Transposition.

ibid, p.273.

            What we do know, and what the non-believer cannot know however, is the nature of the experience itself – in this sense, it is a closed circle, and one must enter in before valid commentary can be provided. An atheist reading Saint Hildegard of Bingen or Saint Catherine of Siena, is bound to read the imagery they employ and the experiences they describe as a religious pathology, and therefore see their use of earthly images as ‘proof’ that their experiences are only projections, with no transcendent value. Similarly, the same person reading the Bible may well scoff at the plethora of mundane imagery as an indictment of how there can’t be anything more to it. But, as Lewis has pointed out in his essay, this could not be any other way, and the only way the atheist/agnostic will be able to see further, is to move past their unbelief.

So, if Lewis is correct in his assessment (and I think he makes a very good case for transposition being a core element in the human experience), then we have further good reason to trust the canonical imagery we receive in Scripture, and the writings of the saints, which also employ many such earthly depictions to describe their experiences. Moreover, we should not be worried if we, when trying to describe any experiences we may have had that transcend everyday life, can only do so in everyday terms. This does not discount or disprove the experience, but only confirm the limitations of our language and the imaginative resources available to us.

There will always be those who insist that religious experience is ‘just’ wishful thinking, and see descriptions of it as proof that this is so, and even those who see love as ‘just’ chemical processes, or thought as ‘just’ the firing of neurons, no matter how much this conflicts with their emotional or rational life. But for most of us, we realise that these higher experiences cannot be adequately described, and not because they are false, but because they burst the banks of our ability to describe. Lewis concludes his essay with some reflections on what all this might mean for life in the hereafter – that if our emotional life can sometimes be hard to accurately express, then how much more will the heavenly realms exceed our expectations of them:

Our natural experiences (sensory, emotional, imaginative) are only like the drawing, like pencilled lines on flat paper. If they vanish in risen life, they will vanish only as pencil lines vanish from the real landscape; not as a candle flame that is put out but as a candle flame which becomes invisible because someone has pulled up the blind, thrown open the shutters, and let in the blaze of the risen sun…

…It is the present life which is the diminution, the symbol, the etiolated, the (as it were) “vegetarian” substitute. If flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom, that is not because they are too solid, too gross, too distinct, too “illustrious with being”. They are too flimsy, too transitory, too phantasmal.

ibid, p.276.

            This idea – that our life here is, though perfectly good and real, but a shadow of the next life, and that when in Heaven we will see our life here on earth (which we see now as so solid and tangible) as the paper sketch to the heavenly three-dimensional reality – is a hallmark of much of Lewis’ work, and given its fullest outworking in The Great Divorce. It is an excellent lens through which to see much of his work, the natural conclusion to his thinking on transposition of experience, and a very appropriate place to summarise his thoughts here, as, if there exist differences in kind in our mundane life, such as Lewis has described, and this is reflected in our ability to describe spiritual experience, then the Source of those experiences must be far beyond our imagining.

And yet, though far beyond what we can imagine, Heaven must also be continuous with our earthly experiences. Our Lord used earthly images to communicate divine truths to his disciples, and the Holy Spirit inspired the biblical writers to use the imagery available to them to communicate something of the glory of Heaven. The things of the earth are hallowed, and their transcendence in the next life is also a confirmation of them, as all the mystical experiences given to us, and all the images abounding in Scripture, are geared towards preparing us for that life, where we will finally be bathed in the glorious light of the Risen Son, and all the hints and glimpses we have received will be both confirmed and fulfilled.