What is our True End?

In my previous post, I discussed the inability of many modern filmmakers to be able to enter into a world where characters and plot are motivated by concerns regarding Christian virtue and Christian goals. Conversely, it seems that many cannot do justice to such a world as they can only conceive of motivations in purely utilitarian terms, and cannot fathom that characters might be driven by something more than a sense of just getting the job done, or a compromised and reluctant sense of duty. Where heroism exists, it is often portrayed in characters that are flawed, with mixed reasons for their acts.

The question I would like to ask today is – what is our true end? As Christians, do we see our decision making in light of God and Heaven, or do we see it in terms of what is most useful or convenient (and also what maximises our pleasure and/or comfort) at any given time? What are our true priorities? In a heavily secularised age, Christians of all different stripes are being increasingly influenced by the moral framework endorsed and promoted by secularists, which is usually some version of utilitarianism. Briefly stated, this sees the rightness of each act we perform as being justified by what immediate results it produces (the short-term ends justify the means).

In such a framework, long-term consequences are seldom taken into consideration, and the essential, objective rightness of a particular act is even less often thought important. The imperative thing is to see which action gets the best ‘net’ results – to see what is the best compromise we can make with a given situation in order to produce the most satisfactory results. Furthermore, although this may sometimes be seen in terms of ‘the greater good’, it is frequently the case that, due to the inner logic of utilitarianism (i.e.; because it is not beholden to any objective standard of goodness, but depends on compromises and immediate consequences) the results seen as satisfactory are usually ones primarily, if not solely, satisfactory to the individual alone.

Contrary to this, we are called to order our lives, and thus all our moral decision-making, towards our true and final end, which is God. We do not have to, and should not, shift the goalposts according to each situation we find ourselves in, with our end only being the immediate and/or ‘averaged out’ consequences of what we are doing. Instead, all our decisions should be seen in the light of what we know to be good, and which we know because it comes from The Good.

However, we can also still see this, if not in terms of what we can ‘get out of it’, then in terms of what is best for us, and for all of us, not just the individual. As Saint Thomas Aquinas writes in his Summa Contra Gentiles, the divine law principally orders man towards God, precisely because God is man’s highest good:

It is evident that every lawmaker intends to direct men by means of laws toward his own end, principally. Thus, the leader of an army intends victory and the ruler of a state intends peace. But the end which God intends is God Himself. Therefore, the divine law principally looks to the ordering of man toward God.

Again, as we have said, law is a rational plan of divine providence, in its governing capacity, proposed to the rational creature. But the governance of God, as providence, conducts individual beings to their own ends. Therefore, man is chiefly ordered to his end by the divinely given law. Now, the end for the human creature is to cling to God, for his felicity consists in this, as we have shown above. So, the divine law primarily directs man to this end: that he may cling to God.

Besides, the intention of every legislator is to make those to whom he gives the law good; as a consequence, the precepts of law should be concerned with acts of virtue. So, those acts which are best are chiefly intended by divine law. But of all human acts, those whereby man clings to God are best, in the sense that they are nearer to the end. Therefore, the divine law primarily orders men in regard to those acts.

Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, Chapter 115.

            Two central points made by Saint Thomas here are that a.) the divine law is ordered towards bringing us closer to God, because He is our true end, and b.) that the divine law, in bringing us closer to God, helps us become more virtuous, because God, as the Good, cannot but want to make His creatures more approximate to His own nature. Becoming closer to God, and in the process becoming more virtuous – i.e.; by making decisions according to the Good, and not according to utility or consequence – is also, as Saint Thomas puts it, in what our ‘felicity consists’; our true happiness is also found by living in such a way:

Again, the end of every law, and above all of divine law, is to make men good. But a man is deemed good from his possession of a good will, through which he may put into act whatever good there is in him. Now, the will is good because it wills a good object, and especially the greatest good, which is the end. So, the more the will desires such a good, the more does a man advance in goodness. But a man has more desire for what he wills because of love than for what he wills because of fear only, for what he loves only from a motive of fear is called an object of mixed involuntariness. Such is the case of the man who wills to throw his merchandise into the sea because of fear. Therefore, the love of the highest good, namely, God, above all else makes men good, and is chiefly intended in the divine law.

Besides, man’s goodness stems from virtue, “for virtue is what makes its possessor good.” Hence, law also intends to make men virtuous, and the precepts of law are concerned with acts of the virtues. But it is a condition of virtue that the virtuous man must act with firmness and joy. But love is the chief producer of this result, for we do a thing firmly, and with joy, as a result of love. Therefore, love of the good is the ultimate object. intended in divine law.

ibid, Chapter 116.

            Thus we also see that our motivations for acting in such a way, are not just motivated by a legalistic choosing of God’s will in each occasion, but ideally we choose to act in accordance with the divine law because we not only recognise God as our true end, but love Him (and therefore love the Good). If we love God, we love the things He loves, and as Saint Thomas writes, we ‘do a thing firmly, and with joy, as a result of love’. So in recognising God as our true end, we choose to do things as He sees fit, and in following through on that commitment, we grow more virtuous; as we grow more virtuous (i.e.; more attuned to the will of God, which is the Good), we grow to love God and the things He wills, thus spurring us on to even greater joy in goodness.

So, ironically, if we live our lives in this light, and always do things in accordance with God’s law, out of our love for Him, the ends will in fact always justify the means, because we will not be using means contrary to the Good, and because we will act this way having our true end in sight. In effect, to be a good Christian is to be a utilitarian par excellence – whereas the secular utilitarian sees things in terms of an approximate ‘greater good’, trying to compromise with the various competing wills of others, and the means justified by what may make him or her happy in the short term, the (ideal) Christian, seeing all things in the light of God, and choosing always what is eternally right, is justified in all that he or she does, and achieves the greatest and most long-lasting happiness into the bargain.

Maximal goodness and maximal happiness are achieved if we see God as our true end, and the only caveat is that we do not see our immediate happiness as the motivating factor in our decision making. If the end we choose is the Good Himself, then the means we use will always be in accordance with that Good, and God, leading us to grow in virtue, always does so because He knows it will increase our happiness. Choosing happiness itself as the goal however will always lead to some degree of compromise, both in terms of the means employed and the long-term outcome. This is of course all contained in the saying of Our Lord, that we are to ‘Seek ye therefore first the kingdom of God, and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you.

King Arthur, Hollywood, and Christian Virtue

I heard recently that Guy Ritchie has been chosen to direct a new screen version of the Arthurian legends, provisionally entitled King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable. My immediate response to this was one of sighing and gnashing of teeth, cursing Hollywood for what is almost certainly to be another mauling of the Arthurian canon. After this initial reaction had passed though, the experience led me to pause for a moment and reflect on why it is Hollywood has not yet managed to produce a convincing re-telling of these stories, as well as any film set in the Middle Ages.

The most recent adaptation of the Arthurian tales was 2004’s King Arthur, directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring Clive Owen as Arthur opposite Keira Knightley as Guinevere. In an attempt (presumably) to reboot the stories for a modern audience, the film places events in a demythologised context, with no involvement of Merlin in Arthur’s birth (Merlin is a distant figure, leading a rebellious group of Picts to the North, and Guinevere herself is reimagined as some kind of Celtic warrior-queen in the mould of Boadicea/Boudica), and no mention of the central tragedy of Lancelot’s involvement with Arthur and Guinevere. The whole period is shifted from the post-Roman and Christian setting of the original stories, to the time of Rome’s withdrawal from Britain.

Most tellingly of all, there is a constant background narrative wherein the native pagan Britons are seen as enlightened and tolerant, versus a constant stream of corrupt and domineering Church/Roman figures. The heretic Pelagius is also mentioned, but bizarrely cited by Arthur as an unfailing supporter of political and social freedom, rather than of free will and human effort unsupported by grace. This enables the film to again paint Rome and the Church as evil figures, suppressing the heroic Pelagius because of his support for liberty and even (wait for it)…social equality and inclusivity!

Thus we discover the real reason for all this demythologising is more than anything else to do with injecting a secular way of seeing the world into a story that cannot support such a vision. This, I would suggest, is the main problem with doing justice to the Arthurian legends on screen – an inability to grasp the character’s motivations, and to instead attempt to reinterpret them in terms of how modern, Western, secular people would see things instead. This leaves us with character and plot motivations that feel either clunky or downright unbelievable, and a general feeling of disconnect throughout.

The best attempt at reading the stories as they themselves ask to be read, and of re-presenting the Arthurian world in terms that make sense of its own motivations, is John Boorman’s Excalibur. This was a worthy but slightly muddled version, as it struggled to ‘fit in’ all the different layers of the stories that had developed over the centuries, instead of focusing on one strand. However, it did at least try to see things in terms of what those stories were originally about, and what motivated the characters in them to do the things they did – which is, in essence, Christian ethics; and more specifically, virtues such as nobility, chastity, charity, and honour.

We live in a world for which such things are at best an embarrassment, the legacies of a world gone by which can never come again, and which we look upon with a mild sense of condescension, even disdain. The ‘dark ages’ or those ‘benighted middle ages’, are seen as periods of ignorance and oppression, with nothing to offer us, and no resources from which we can draw upon to reinvigorate our own culture. It is increasingly the case though, that even though these periods will be though of in those terms when considered, more often than not they are not even on our radar at all, and the virtues listed above are things that do not even compute.

This can be seen in Fuqua’s King Arthur, where the knights, instead of being motivated by ideals of honour, justice and charity, are moved instead by a thirst for violence, a sense of self-preservation, and occasionally greed. The closest we get to the chivalry of the original stories is in a grudging sense that if they are to die, they may as well do it together, giving us a skewed, reluctant version of the brotherhood of the Round Table instead of their having been united by a shared commitment to certain ideals. I am not suggesting of course, that medieval knights were never motivated by baser instincts. My point is that it rarely enters into the mind of modern filmmakers that they could be motivated by anything else.

The case of the Arthurian tales, and of many films set in medieval times (for a particularly badly represented subset of this genre, I point to films about the Crusades, where I am not aware of any that have managed to justice to their complex realities; and in recent times we have again seen the secular worldview imposed upon real history, to make them more explicable for modern audiences, and thus robbing them of any real coherence, particularly in the case of Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood) represent a wider problem in filmmaking, in that directors, producers and screenwriters not only see Christian virtue as embarrassing or irrelevant, but increasingly do not understand it at all.

To what extent this is reflected in the audiences I am not sure, but it seems reasonably clear that the more they are told by film producers, directors, etc, that, for them to understand it, subject matter like the King Arthur stories needs to have sentiment substituted for romance and the ‘realism’ of human compromise substituted for honour, the more they will start to believe that they need this layering of secularism onto such topics, and the prophecy will have become self-fulfilled. How much of this is to do with a deliberate elimination of Christian virtue and ethics from history, I do not know (though I suspect this plays a large part too); but what does seem apparent is that this is language that people are becoming increasingly unfamiliar with.

That this is the case is a great shame, and not just because it means that I am going to have to wait a very long time before anything like a good Arthurian film comes out (Guy Ritchie may prove me wrong, but I’m not holding my breath on that one). It is also sad because it shows us a culture that is deliberately marginalising (for various reasons) and making itself unfamiliar with, something that forms the very basis of its own self-understanding, whether it realises it or not; and also something that would be the perfect antidote to much of our current cultural malaise.

A re-appreciation of Christian virtues like honour, charity, justice (and yes, even chastity – perhaps especially this one!) could help to imbue a rootless and rudderless people with the ideals they need to lift them out of the mire that we seem to intent on drawing ourselves further into. All the values we still hold dear (few though they are) can only be justified, both historically and philosophically, by acknowledging their Christian roots, and thus the Christian virtues are the only things that can reinvigorate and redirect our selfish and self-destructive culture. And yet, as Our Lord said, ‘how often would I have gathered you under my wings, and you would not!’ Those wings are always open, and ready to gather us again; but we must have the humility to first admit our wrongs, and turn back to the place from which we have so eagerly fled.

In God We Trust

Following on from my post of yesterday, which partially examined the question of whether a belief in Pauline authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews is reasonable and/or sustainable (the answer to which was yes), today I would like to take as the basis for my post a few verses from that epistle, which talk about the hope we can have in God’s promises, and the trust we can place in them, because of Who has made them:

So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of his promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he interposed with an oath, so that through two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible that God should be proved false, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to seize the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchiz’edek.

Epistle to the Hebrews, 6:17-20.

            From this passage we can glean several things: that God’s purposes are unchangeable; that He chooses to reveal them to us; that it is ‘impossible that God should be proved false’; that we can fly ‘for refuge’ to God and His promises, having ‘strong encouragement’ in them, and taking them as ‘a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul’; and that it is in Jesus, who has ‘gone as a forerunner on our behalf’ that we can know this and in Whom we can place our hope – we find that ultimately, we must hope and trust in Him, Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, fully man and fully God.

Not only this, but we know that we can have such ‘encouragement’ in Jesus, taking Him as a ‘sure and steadfast anchor of the soul’, because we will not be deceived by what He reveals to us and what God promises us in Him. This immediately raises the question though – how do we know God/how do we get to know Jesus? Surely, according to the passage from Hebrews above, it cannot be a way in which we are misled, or it would indeed be possible for God’s purposes to be proved false, and His unchangeable character may well appear changeable, if the medium through which we receive His revelation is unreliable.

A useful framework for examining the most common ways in and through which people claim to know God’s will is provided by what is known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral – a four-fold method for theological reflection, interpretation and development, named after its originator, John Wesley (though the term was not coined until the 20th Century, by an American Methodist called Albert C. Outler). It is essentially the Anglican ‘three-legged stool’ of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, with another leg added on – Experience (this leg, incidentally, seems to be covertly included within the ‘Reason’ category by much modern-day Anglican debate, although this is never explicitly stated).

Wesley believed that Holy Scripture was the foundational resource for Christian theology, just as Anglicanism historically sees the Bible as taking precedence amongst its three ‘legs’ (again, modern-day discussions sometimes give the impression that all three are equal in significance, but this was not originally the case). He also believed however, that scriptural interpretation should be done in light of the continued witness of Christians throughout history – i.e.; Tradition – and that the process should be conducted in such a way that both employs reason and does not produce results that are contrary to it.

Finally, he placed a great emphasis on experience, believing that one cannot have real assurance of something if it is not experienced personally. This can range from experiences that corroborate known doctrine, to those which contravene it in some way, but here the sense of personal assurance gained from that experience allows one to trump received opinion – that someone ‘just knows’ something is seen as part of ongoing tradition, and of inherent benefit because experience is something ‘simple’, as opposed to the often complex sifting and comparing of Christianity’s great wealth of traditions.

Wesley also believed that these four elements were not only good guides to theological work, but also descriptive of how most people go about it anyway. To a certain extent this is true – each one of us values all of these four, and they do indeed form part of the interpretive framework that we all (whether consciously or not) employ when thinking through theological issues. However, to return to the original question posed in this post – namely, how we are to know God, and in a way in which we will not be misled – these four elements are unable to provide the stability (either individually or corporately) which can do justice to the promises of assurance that we read about in Hebrews.

It seems plain, if not from personal experience then from a glance at the enormous range of denominations in existence that have resulted from this approach, that the view seeing Scripture as clear and self-interpreting is not only self-defeating in theory, but highly destructive of doctrinal/moral clarity and of Christian unity. Holy Scripture is a book which needs interpretation, and so needs interpretive guidelines. Tradition can provide this to a certain extent, so that the scope of individual interpretation is limited by the collaborative voices of orthodox Christians throughout the ages, but immediately the question of ‘which tradition’ comes up – in the post-Reformation world there are many, and it is by no means obvious which is the most orthodox, or where our bench-mark for orthodoxy even comes from.

Similarly, whilst it is very important to use our reason, and for our conclusions not to conflict with what is reasonable, the very question of what is reasonable is itself something that will be up for debate – most often in important theological discussions. For instance, in the arguments over women’s ordination that have re-emerged after General Synod’s decision to admit women to the episcopate, both sides of the dispute considered their rationales and conclusions to be highly reasonable, but clearly both cannot be right. Reason must be consonant with orthodoxy, which is something that we have already ascertained cannot be known with confidence through Scripture and Tradition alone.

Taking into account contemporary experience, whilst a necessary part of being a living religious tradition, and which stops it from becoming ossified, only introduces another competing voice, which in an already uncertain situation, creates more ambiguity, and leads us further away from being able to lay claim to that ‘sure and steadfast anchor of the soul’ – from being able to know Jesus Christ, and so God Himself. Whilst it is very important to be aware of the experiences of Christians in contemporary culture, taking into account the different perspectives that need to be engaged with, the voice of experience can never be allowed to conflict with known Christian doctrine, or we will most certainly end up trusting in ourselves, not God.

So, how can we then lay our hands on this anchor; how can we know God and His will with assurance, so that we might flee to Him for refuge in a world beset with forces at odds with the Faith? The missing ingredient in Wesley’s Quadrilateral is the Church – something hinted at in the ‘Tradition’ element, but which unfortunately stops at a conglomeration of voices over the ages, not something that has a unified voice and can speak definitively here, now. The institutional Church, visible, with defined offices, and that speaks with divine sanction, is the only means by which we can properly know a.) the limit of valid interpretive possibilities, b.) what orthodoxy actually is, and c.) how to discern the validity of contemporary experiences.

I have examined this at greater length in another post, but what seems clear enough to me here, is that if we are to experience the sort of strong hope and confidence in God that we are urged to by Scripture, and if we are to get to know the One who ‘has gone as a forerunner on our behalf’, knowing Him truly and deeply, and not worrying about whether we are travelling in the right direction or not, then we need an infallible Church. Even if some do not like this, or even the like the idea of it, I do not see what possible alternative there is for anyone sincerely seeking to know Our Lord better, and to trust in Him wholeheartedly in the way we are called to.

Authorship, Authority and the Epistles of Saint Paul

At the Council of Trent, many things that had been long held by the Church were clarified and/or given more authoritative articulation for the first time, as a response to the Protestant polemics which challenged them. One of the things stated in this way was the canon of Scripture, which had already been listed at the councils of Rome (382 AD) and Carthage (397), and was formally approved closer to Trent at the Council of Florence in 1442. In April 1546, the Council of Trent re-approved and sanctioned this canon, which, as well as confirming the canonicity of various Old Testament books rejected by Martin Luther, listing:

…fourteen epistles of Paul the apostle, (one) to the Romans, two to the Corinthians, (one) to the Galatians, to the Ephesians, to the Philippians, to the Colossians, two to the Thessalonians, two to Timothy, (one) to Titus, to Philemon, to the Hebrews…

Thus Trent did not only confirm the books of the New Testament affirmed by the councils of Rome and Carthage (a list also affirmed by an Easter letter written by Saint Athanasius in 367), but it also precisely identified (as did Carthage) the author of those letters commonly attributed to Saint Paul as being…Saint Paul! The question of whether or not Paul actually wrote the letters that he has been traditionally understood to have written therefore has quite a lot of authoritative weight behind the opinion that he did indeed write them. For someone to question such a conclusion then, they had better have some jolly good reasons for doing so.

Over the course of the past century this position has increasingly been called into question, with Paul’s authorship of First and Second Timothy, Titus, and Ephesians widely discredited, and also Colossians and Second Thessalonians often queried. The Epistle to the Hebrews is almost unanimously thought not to have been written by Saint Paul. Whether these conclusions are valid ones, and whether the voice of the Church on this matter has been undermined for good reason, is another question altogether, and one that I shall try to address here, identifying some of the criteria used to support these decisions (in general, rather than on a case by case basis), before looking at Hebrews as a case in and of itself.

The main criteria that are used to determine whether or not a biblical epistle was genuinely written by the author traditionally said to have done so are as follows:

  1. Writing style and vocabulary – based on how the author writes in letters known to be by them, does the style here ‘fit’ that pattern?
  2. Theological and/or ecclesiological outlook – does this letter share the same vision laid out in other, authentic, epistles?
  3. Chronological references in other New Testament documents – is there a contradiction between what Saint Paul is said to have done in Acts and what he says in Titus (for example)?
  4. The use of pseudepigraphia – the practice of using the name of someone more famous than oneself to lend a document authority and authenticity, which was sometimes practised in the ancient world, and not dishonourably. This is not used as a criterion for judging Pauline epistles to be inauthentic, but to show that it wouldn’t have mattered to the early Church if Paul hadn’t actually written them.

The first issue, that of a difference in writing style and/or vocabulary, seems to me to be the easiest to discount. If one were to take a look at the writings of any given person during different stages of their life, they would find there many different styles of writing, based on who they were writing to, what they were writing about, where they were in life personally, as well as taking into account the ways in which life experiences shape us and our outlook, sometimes from one day to another, let alone over the course of months and years.

When we consider that Saint Paul wrote his epistles over the course of somewhere between ten and fifteen years, the wealth of changing circumstances he lived through (including facing imprisonment and death), and the wide variety of people and situations he was writing to in his letters, it becomes very easy to see why his writing style may have changed a bit during that period! He wrote to churches in different situations, to people he was mentoring (Titus and Timothy), and he is not by any means systematic in his approach to either.

This leads to the question of Paul’s theological development. This issue is brought up most often with respect to Ephesians and Colossians, which represent a Christology which is supposedly too ‘high’ and therefore at odds with what is presented elsewhere. However, there is no explicit contradiction between what is written in these two epistles and what we find in Paul’s other writings, and what he does write in Ephesians and Colossians is so complementary to the Christology of other epistles that it could be said to represent a natural development of his thought on the matter, especially given that the Christology of the earlier letters is by no means lacking in christological significance and potential.

Given that they are commonly dated roughly five years after the Epistle to the Romans, this is more than sufficient time for Paul to have been able to reflect further on the significance of what he had been preaching and writing about Christ earlier on. There is also the fact that he was under house arrest when he wrote these epistles (c.f.; Acts 28:30-31) and so would have had the sort of time for reflection not available to him during his previous incessant travelling around the Mediterranean world. Consider how our own thinking changes over the course of five years, how periods of sustained reflection can facilitate this, and just how deeply in contact Saint Paul was with the mystery of Christ (c.f.; Galatians 2:20), and we can have good reason for seeing any development here as completely authentic.

The issue of supposedly advanced ecclesiologies can be dealt with similarly – the emphasis on church officials and structure in the Pastoral Epistles can be seen in light of the fact that Paul, now an older man, nearing the end of his life, would want to make provision for the future. In writing directly to those who he had coached and readied to continue his work later on, he would be bound to emphasise the need for order in the Church so that they too could make similar provisions and correctly pass on the apostolic teaching authority.

Add to this the fact that Philippians (an ‘accepted’ epistle) is addressed to the ‘bishops and deacons’ there, and that the ‘advanced’ ecclesiology presented in (e.g.) First Timothy is reflected in a generation that not only succeeded Paul’s but in writers who external testimony tells us knew him (Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch), and we have some very compelling reasons not to use this as evidence against Pauline authorship. Furthermore, the ecclesiology in Ephesians (c.f.; 4:1-16; 5:21-33), which is also taken for granted by Saints Clement and Ignatius, is plainly a fuller expression of what we find in First Corinthians 12, so I don’t think we need to see any contradiction there.

The principal chronological clashes cited in this debate are as follows. Firstly, Paul writes at the end of Romans (15:28) that he plans to visit Spain, and so it is claimed that he wouldn’t have had time to go there as well as to other places like Crete (which he says that he visited in Titus 1:5), and also no mention of this visit is given elsewhere. The most sensible answer to this is to point out that neither Acts nor any of the Epistles claims to give a comprehensive account of Paul’s life, including every place that he visited. If Titus 1:5 says he visited Crete, then we have other good grounds for believing that he did, and we do not require this to be backed up by other citations.

Furthermore, what Paul writes in Romans 15 is only that he wished to visit Spain – we do not know whether he did or not, and to take someone’s wishes to go somewhere as proof that they did is just as tenuous as to suggest that they can ever only write in one style and with one mode of thought. Another chronological issue suggested is that in Ephesians (1:15; 3:2; 4:21) the author seems unfamiliar with those he is writing to, whereas we know Saint Paul to have visited Ephesus for a long period (c.f.; Acts 19:10). This can be explained by the fact that Ephesus included a wide range of satellite villages ranging up to 30 miles from its centre (something alluded to in Acts 19:10, which says that Paul’s preaching radiated out far from the places he actually visited).

Because of this, Saint Paul would not have been personally acquainted with many of those he was writing to, simply because his preaching had reached so many other people, over so far an area. In fact, upon reflection, it seems obvious that this would often have been the case, regardless of how big an area it was Paul was writing to – each city church would almost certainly have contained members that he may not have had the chance to meet, let alone new believers who had come to the Faith after he had left. I do not have the space here to address each and every case of this type, but I believe that they can all be dealt with just as adequately.

As for the matter of pseudepigraphia, this is a theory that I find to be particularly problematic, as all the epistles listed by the Council of Trent, except for Hebrews, are signed by Saint Paul or in some way explicitly claim to be written by him, and the idea that someone could pass off their own writings as that of an Apostle, thus invoking their authority, seems to be to be downright disingenuous and contrary to the spirit of the Gospel. Contrary to this, many have pointed to the fact that in the ancient world it was common to use a pseudonym in writings, and so Christians may have done the same.

The problem with this view is that although this was a common practice in ancient times, it was not common when writing personal letters (such as the Epistles are). Moreover, this practice was explicitly rejected by the early Church (c.f.; The Muratorian Fragment 64-67, Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History 6.12.3, and 2 Thessalonians 2:2; 3:17 – it is particularly damning that the latter, one of the disputed epistles, unambiguously writes against such a practice!). Tertullian (On Baptism, 17) also writes of a priest being removed from their office for falsely using Paul’s name, and all the Pauline Epistles (again, bar Hebrews) were accepted as authentic, something which it would not likely to have done if they were not of apostolic origin.

Finally then, we come to the case of Hebrews itself, which as we can see above, did not enjoy the same level of external corroboration or acceptance by the early Church. I only take this as a special case because it is a.) so widely discounted as being of Pauline origin, and b.) does not enjoy the same patristic support, and I shall not be able to do full justice to all the issues involved in the debate. However, I should start out by mentioning that the Epistle did find much patristic support in the Eastern Church, and the Church in the West came into full agreement with the East by the end of the fourth century (c.f.; the councils of Carthage and Rome). So despite its authorship not having as much support as other Pauline epistles, it does indeed have much weight behind it.

The main early endorsement we have of Hebrews (and its endorsement carries with it a tacit assumption that it was therefore of apostolic origin) is from Saints Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus – so very early, and very significant figures. The main voice presented against its Pauline origin though, is that of Origen, who is often quoted as saying that ‘only God knows who’ wrote Hebrews. The context of this quote is less often given though, and is much more illuminating, as Origen actually says:

…as for myself, if I were to state my own opinion, I should say that the thoughts are the apostle’s, but that the style and composition belonged to one who called to mind the apostle’s teachings and, as it were, made short notes of what his master said. If any church, therefore, holds this epistle as Paul’s, let it be commended for this also. For not without reason have the men of old handed it down as Paul’s. But who wrote the epistle, in truth God knows. Yet the account which has reached us [is twofold], some saying that Clement, who was bishop of the Romans, wrote the epistle, others, that it was Luke, he who wrote the Gospel and the Acts.

Eusebius, 6.25.11-14.

            The Epistle’s being written by a companion of Saint Paul’s (either Saint Clement or Saint Luke) would easily explain the marked difference in style found in Hebrews (it is written in much more elegant Greek than Paul’s other epistles, something which Luke is well known for), and allows us to still posit Paul’s mind behind the writing. The thought of the letter seems to me perfectly consonant with Pauline thought as expressed in other epistles, and differs only insofar as it deals with subject that is not dealt with elsewhere – namely the Jewish Temple, and the Sacrifice of Christ.

This latter point is an important one, as all the other Pauline epistles are written to Gentile audiences, where these issues would not be pressing ones, to say the least. Writing to a Jewish audience (which the title of the Epistle, its content, and the increased use of Old Testament citations strongly suggest) would necessarily require this change of emphasis, which would itself result in a change in theology – but the mode of arguments employed can certainly be seen to fit the methods Paul employs elsewhere. The only other main issue here is that the Epistle nowhere claims to be written by Saint Paul (or anyone else for that matter).

A possible explanation for this could be that Paul was not exactly popular with the Jews since his becoming a Christian – something well attested to by the Acts of the Apostles – and he felt that the message laid out in Hebrews would not have been as well accepted (especially if it were written to a church at Jerusalem) if he had attached his name to it, or that the Jewish Christians receiving it may suffer increased persecution because of an association with him. Another possible reason is that his name did not carry as much weight with the Jewish churches – Saint Peter and Saint James were better known amongst them, and he could not write it under their names, for reasons discussed earlier.

So, we have strong (albeit not unanimous) testimony to Hebrews’ Pauline authorship, a perfectly sensible reason for its change in style and theology, and sufficient possible reasons as to why it was not signed by Saint Paul. Yet, as mentioned already, there is widespread rejection of Pauline authorship amongst scholars, a point of view shared by many non-scholars and lay persons. This to me, is an excellent example of how far the academy has allowed a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ to infect their thinking – given even the smallest reason to doubt something, they will; and also as to where it is many in the Church really look for guidance in such matters.

The authorship of Hebrews, as well as all the other epistles commonly attributed to Saint Paul, has been, whilst not infallibly stated, affirmed by the Church in successive councils since the fourth century – a decision informed by even earlier patristic testimony. Yet so many today prefer to ignore the Church’s voice on this matter, preferring to believe the views of biblical scholars, many of whom conduct their studies through secular lenses, and who have no authoritative weight behind them other than their own personal (and temporary) prestige. Personally, I find it much safer to trust the Church in this matter, as her authority does not come from any accumulation of temporal acclaim, but from divine sanction.

Furthermore, as I hope to have shown here (although only in part, as there is so much more to say on the matter, and individual case studies that it is beyond the scope of this post to address), it is also perfectly reasonable to do so. I asked the question at the outset of this post whether there were any good reasons to doubt what the Church has said regarding Pauline authorship, and I do not think there are any weighty enough to doubt her. Not only is it safer to listen to the Church rather than the world, here as in most matters, but her claims continually prove justifiable – which is as one would expect, given whom it is that guides her.

Medieval Society and the Importance of Custom

In my last post, I considered the question of which worldview – the secular or the Christian – could best give an account of our commitment to certain values, such as freedom, human dignity, and tolerance. In examining this question, in which I believe a very good case can be made that only Christianity has the resources and inner logic to truly do justice to the values we hold dear in the West, many of those values were seen to have their roots in aspects of Europe’s High Medieval culture. In today’s post, I would like to take a look at one particular aspect of that culture – that of custom – and ask what lessons we might be able to draw from it for today.

In the Middles Ages (broadly speaking, between 500 and 1500 AD) society was ordered according to a feudal system, which was not something set in stone, but a broad range of social interactions and traditions built around an agreed framework of hierarchy and local self-government. By the ‘high’ period I would like to consider (roughly between 1000 and 1300 AD), this system had become more regularised, and towards its end, the impact of urban culture was beginning to impact a little more on the mainly rural, self-governing systems of lords and tenants, but the importance of custom remained.

This situation is described well in the book Those Terrible Middle Ages, by Regine Pernoud, where she makes the case (one thankfully being recognised more and more now) that the medieval period was not some benighted period of repression and ignorance, such as we see in so many Hollywood films, but one of rich plurality of traditions, great learning, freedom of ideas, and a society where absolute power was mitigated by strong local bonds:

The authority that Charlemagne sought to restore could do scarcely more than sanction an established fact: which is to say that the power formerly concentrated in a precise place, the expression of a determined will, no longer existed. Only local powers reigned; what was referred to as public power was fragmented and spread into a multitude of cells that could be called independent if that term did not signify for us the faculty of acting according to individual whim. Now, in fact, all individual will was limited and determined by what was the great force of the feudal age: custom. We will never understand what that society was if we fail to understand custom, which is to say, that collection of usages born of concrete acts and drawing their power from the times that hallowed them; its dynamic was that of tradition: a given, but a living given, not fixed, ever susceptible to change without ever being submitted to a particular will.

Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths (2000), p.69, Ignatius Press.

            The idea that certain practices might not only be perpetuated but also valued purely because they were time-honoured and traditional – i.e.; that they have been found effectual and enriching by previous generations, and, handed down to subsequent generations, also passed on a particular way of life bound up with them – is not one that gains much currency nowadays. In fact, we are more likely to reject something precisely because it is ‘traditional’, which is seen as the polar opposite of ‘progressive’ – the latter being a shibboleth that guarantees acceptance of almost any idea in our age.

The use of custom as an underlying structural element in medieval society was instead seen as something that liberated individuals and communities from torrents of change that might be imposed upon them from outside. Holding to practices that had worked for generations and that received wide acceptance because of their efficacy protected people from any ‘progressive’ movements that the whims of leaders – who recognised the importance and legitimacy of custom for their subjects – might impose upon them.

Furthermore, these customs were not set in stone – it was not a case of tradition for tradition’s sake, but one of recognition that previous ages might know better than ours what is good for our society’s flourishing. The customs that were passed down had been tried and tested by preceding generations, and medieval people trusted in the wisdom of their forebears. On top of this, established customs acted as protection not just against distant rulers, but against the desire of one’s lord to change his mind on rental agreements, etc:

…usages were introduced under the pressure of circumstances; some of them fell into disuse; others were immediately fought, others in the end were accepted or merely tolerated by the group as a whole and soon acquired the force of custom. It was thus that rents, for example, were very early fixed in very diverse ways according to domain. Now, once accepted on both sides and collected for a certain time, there could no longer be a question of abolishing them: it was necessary to wait for them to disappear of themselves. Custom, usage that was lived and tacitly approved, governed the life of the human group and constituted obstacles to individual caprices.

ibid, p.70.

            Underpinning all these agreements was the issue of the oath – a solemn mutual agreement between two people, or two families even, that would set boundaries seen as beneficial to both parties. Essentially, in this cultural situation, someone’s word was seen as binding, and breaking of an oath was seen as a severe crime, leading to the loss of protections originally laid out in the oath, or of exclusion from the community:

The one would benefit from a guarantee, the other, the lord, senior, the elder, the master to whom he had applied, would find himself more wealthy, more powerful, and thus all the more capable of exercising the protection expected of him. Finally, even as a stopgap measure imposed by difficult circumstances, the transaction, in principle, would benefit both parties involved. It was a man-to-man action, a mutual contract that higher authorities did not approve, and for good reason, but which was concluded under oath at a time when an oath, sacramentum, had a religious value…

…this same society rested on personal connections, of man to man; one committed oneself to a particular lord. If some incident occurred, it was necessary to renew the agreement that had been made. In this way the history of feudal times unfolded, made up of games of alliances that were formed and then dissolved; here it was a vassal – a word of Celtic origin, we should note in passing – who swore homage to his lord, but then who proved guilty of infidelity; there it was another who, having sworn homage to the father, refused to do as much for the son.

ibid, pp.67&71.

            Essentially, what seems to have made such a system possible, and for it to work so well, was the value people placed on honesty and integrity. This is not to say that dishonest tenants or unscrupulous landlords did not exist in medieval times, but only that there was more of a stigma attached to such behaviour, and that it had the weight of both community recognition and religious sanction. In an age such as ours, where morality is seen as something negotiable, able to be adapted for one’s own purposes, values like honesty and integrity have inevitably diminished in practical acceptance and application.

Much of the breakdown in our communities could be said to be linked to a breakdown in honesty and trust, and whilst I would not suggest a wholesale return to medieval life (though, God knows, sometimes in my weaker moments I do yearn to be transported back to the 13th Century), as the benefits of modern life are plain for all to see, I would suggest a re-appraisal of what certain aspects of medieval living can teach us. From the examples above, I would first suggest that putting individual character – especially in terms of honesty and integrity – above how useful or efficient people are, would be a great boon to our societies, especially at the local level (which is where everything starts after all).

Secondly, I think a re-appreciation for the virtues of tradition is something that must be initiated. Again, this is not tradition for its own sake, but a simple recognition that (to paraphrase Chesterton) true democracy means giving a voice to the dead as well as the living – previous ages have much wisdom to give us, if only we would listen. If we are ever to truly ‘progress’, we must be willing to admit that this sometimes means facing the mistakes we have made, especially in being so quick to get rid of things just because they didn’t fit a particular ideological paradigm. A little humility can go a long way.

Freedom, Faith, and the Question of Europe

In a couple of previous posts, here and here, I have discussed how deeply Europe’s identity is rooted in its Christian – and specifically its Catholic – history, with the unity of the Faith providing an underlying cultural infrastructure to Europe that has been a solidifying and sustaining principle for centuries. This cohesive principle – a shared commitment to Christian beliefs and values – was first interrupted during the fragmentation of Christendom that took place during the Protestant Reformation, and then, as the lack of unity in belief and of authority to mitigate engagements with societal changes continued to work itself out, it gradually became weaker and weaker.

Today, Europe is profoundly un-Christian. Whilst vestiges of Christian moral commitments remain to some extent, commitment to its doctrines and church attendance are at an all-time low. This does not mean that Europe has become corporately atheist – most people still profess some belief in a ‘life-force’ or suchlike, and see themselves as being ‘spiritual’ (whatever that may mean in any given case) – but it does mean a wholesale rejection of Christianity as something that might act as a cultural touchstone or resource for moral decision making. This was made explicitly clear in fact, when in June 2004, a new EU Constitution* was written, in which any mention of Europe’s Christian roots was deliberately excluded, bizarrely re-writing history in the name of a supposed ‘neutrality towards worldviews’.

In that same constitution’s preface, a commitment was made to upholding the ‘universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, democracy, equality, freedom and the rule of law.’ The question that presents itself though, now that the doyens of the EU have decided for us all that Christianity is to play no part in Europe’s future (and apparently played no part in shaping its past), is whether or not secularism actually provides an adequate basis from which to protect the ‘universal values’ mentioned in the preface.

In his book The Cube and the Cathedral, George Weigel examines this question of which worldview can best give an account for our commitment to certain values, and argues powerfully that it is only the Christian vision of man and the universe that can do so coherently, and therefore sustainably, and that it is Christianity which provides the most compelling historical reasons for why we embrace those values in the first place:

The democratic project did not emerge, a kind of political virgin birth, in either the Glorious Revolution of 1688 or the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. To be sure, those were crucial turning points in the history of modern political thought and in democratic political institutions. But the cultural foundations for the ideas and institutions of self-governance had been laid centuries before in the European universities (entirely Christian in their origins); in such Christian practices as the direct, democratic election of superiors in Benedictine monasteries; in the pilgrimage tradition by which the men and women of an emerging Europe met and came to understand themselves as members of common civilisational enterprise; in the rich social pluralism of medieval life; and in the cultural instincts and commitments that were gleaned from these distinctive European experiences.

The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God (2005), p.106, Gracewing.

            To this Weigel adds that the experience of the investiture controversies in the eleventh century helped to definitively draw the lines of separation between Church and State, and to limit the powers of the latter – a distinction which was notable by its absence both in Byzantium and in Tsarist Russia, where the Church was regularly subordinated to imperial or royal powers, with woeful consequences for both it and society at large. This limitation is now being gradually erased in our own time

Also, Christian thought recognised the existence of a transcendent order of justice that each ruler was accountable to. The undermining of objective morality through relativism (an ideology which the exclusion of Christianity from the public sphere is in part designed to protect), and the endorsement of a utilitarian ethic, have instead left us with the increasingly arbitrary rulings of legislators as our only guide to what is right and wrong. So now, instead of our rulers being accountable to a higher realm, they shape the moral law themselves, and are accountable to very little.

Most importantly perhaps is Christianity’s role in shaping and preserving our beliefs about human dignity. A commitment to the dignity of each and every human person, though enshrined in the EU Constitution, is being exposed as more and more farcical every day – what it really seems to mean is a commitment to the ‘rights’ of each human person to do what they want, when they want, as long as they’re not (directly and immediately) hurting anybody else. Conversely…

The Christian idea of vocation – the unique role that each Christian plays in the cosmic drama of creation and redemption – is one root of the Western idea of individualism, which was not, in its origins, a matter of self-constituting autonomy but of living out the singular, God-given destiny that is every human life. Moreover, the Christian doctrines of the Incarnation (God entering history in the flesh) and the Redemption (“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” [John 3:16-17]) gave the world a dignity it could not achieve by its own efforts.

ibid, pp.102-103.

            Essentially, the only thing that guarantees the rights and dignity of each human person is that they are made in the image of God, that God affirmed and consecrated the goodness of the human condition by becoming Incarnate in it, and that He thought it worth dying for. The secularist vision provides no real reason as to why human beings (of whatever condition in life, and no matter how ‘useful’ they might or might not be) should be considered of any more worth than any other animal, and its position on issues of human life such as abortion and euthanasia provides damning evidence that any commitment to such a vision is more rhetorical than substantive.

The other problem with the modern, secular vision of Europe, is in its basic premise that a.) it can be neutral towards worldviews, and b.) that this is the best environment in which to provide tolerance towards other worldviews, as well as freedom to embrace different philosophies of life. The first claim is manifestly untrue: none of us can be ‘neutral’ in the way we see life, and secularism is no different – it proposes a vision wherein religion does not and cannot have a public voice (ostensibly in the name of not excluding other religions), and then calls this position neutrality, when in reality this already presupposes that the only way to be neutral is to be secular. Secularism is an ideology like any other, and to claim it as some sort of ideological tabula rasa is gravely dishonest.

Secondly, it is a highly suspect claim that a secular Europe does make tolerance and freedom more possible than a Europe which embraces its Christian roots. For starters, without any established convictions about ultimate reality, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to say why we should be tolerant – all we are left with, if we exclude objective claims about reality, is scepticism and relativism (which themselves presuppose an a-religious worldview, and so are already themselves ideological positions), and finally indifference. We do not tolerate others because we respectfully disagree with them, and are willing to live alongside those with whom we disagree, but because we don’t believe in anything and see the various competing claims as ‘just’ private beliefs.

When these private beliefs, which all good secularists tolerate/are indifferent to, become articulated in public however, and especially when they impact upon the way in which certain aspects of civic life are conducted, the only option available is to silence those voices, because they do not fit the secular paradigm. Thus, rather than true tolerance, we have indifference coupled with repression – despotism, the soft way. The rationale for excluding these voices is also almost completely arbitrary – superficially it is in the name of maintaining a tolerant society, but in actuality it is geared towards ridding religion of any significance. Thus any dialogue on moral issues (which are always religious issues) becomes inevitably one-sided, and freedom is sidelined.

A different model is presented by the Christian vision of man, which sees each individual as inherently worthwhile simply because they are human, and reveres free will, which not only renders us responsible for our actions (thus providing grounds for good citizenship), but also sees the freedom of those with whom we disagree as something to be preserved, and this as an obligation to God, not legislators. This vision was given powerful articulation by (now Saint) Pope John Paul II, in his Apostolic Exhortation of 2003, Ecclesia in Europa, where he wrote that:

In building a city worthy of man, a guiding role should be played by the Church’s social teaching. Through this teaching the Church challenges the continent of Europe about the moral quality of its civilization. This social doctrine arises from the encounter of the biblical message and human reason on the one hand, and on the other with the problems and situations involving individual and social life. By the body of principles which it sets forth, the Church’s social doctrine helps lay solid foundations for a humane coexistence in justice, peace, freedom and solidarity. Because it is aimed at defending and promoting the dignity of the human person, which is the basis not only of economic and political life, but also of social justice and peace, this doctrine proves capable of upholding the supporting structures of Europe‘s future. It contains points of reference which make it possible to defend the moral structure of freedom, so as to protect European culture and society both from the totalitarian utopia of “justice without freedom” and from the utopia of “freedom without truth” which goes hand in hand with a false concept of “tolerance”. Both utopias portend errors and horrors for humanity, as the recent history of Europe sadly attests.

Ecclesia in Europa, 98.

            This vision does not mean returning to the Christendom of the past, with everyone professing the Christian faith. Not only is that an impossibility, but it is in some ways a situation the Church would not want to return to – the power she enjoyed in the past, and the closeness of its relationship to the State presented many temptations, and without them she can focus more readily on her essential task, which is the conversion of hearts, minds and souls. No, what Saint John Paul recommended is something that benefits all European citizens, of whatever faith, or none:

Because of its intrinsic connection with the dignity of the human person, the Church’s social doctrine is also capable of being appreciated by those who are not members of the community of believers. It is urgent, then, that this doctrine be better known and studied, and that more and more Christians become familiar with it. The new Europe now being built demands this, since it requires individuals formed in these values and disposed to working for the attainment of the common good. This will require the presence of Christian lay faithful who, by their various responsibilities in civic life, the economy, culture, health care, education and politics, are able by their activities to imbue these spheres with the values of the Kingdom.

ibid, 99.

            Europe cannot operate for long if it continues as it is now – a collection of countries joined to one another by political and economic alliances, and adherence to an increasingly small (and increasingly meaningless) set of shared values. It must, if it is to continue as a thing with a soul as well as an outer shell (and if it does not recover its soul, I fear it will not continue long at all) recover a sense of where the values that it is formally committed to come from, what justification it has for professing them, and where its cultural identity has its roots. The Catholic Church alone, with the resources of its rich history of patronising the arts, sciences and philosophy, as well as its contemporary statements on freedom, human dignity and tolerance, remains capable of offering us a robust vision of man which is able to do this.

There is much, much more to be said about this topic, but one important objection remains, and that is that the history of the Church is a chequered one, with instances of religious intolerance, and tacit approval of state persecutions blotting its past. However, one other benefit of a Christian vision of humanity is that at its heart is a divine initiative of the forgiveness of sins, which is designed to perpetuate itself in the life of Christian believers. To be able to confess one’s sins before God (as various Church representatives have done, at the highest level) and to ask for forgiveness, is to genuinely engage with the darker aspects of human nature, and to begin a process of authentic reconciliation and reform.

Repentance of this kind is not available to the secular mentality, which instead expresses itself in the jargon of political correctness and does not engage with the real issue of human sin (as sin is something that it denies) that underpins all our misdemeanours. This then is another way in which secularism presents a vision of Europe, and of humanity, which is narrow, without justification for its core beliefs, and in the long run, unsustainable of the things it holds dear, rendering it unable to effectively engage with other cultures (c.f.; Islam). Let us instead have the humility to turn back to our past, uncover the Christian roots of our cultural identity, and embrace a worldview that is profoundly committed to life, truth and real human happiness.

 

*Formally known as the ‘Treaty for Establishing a Constitution for Europe’ it was finally superseded by the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009, but this was principally concerned with voting procedures, the scope of EU legislation, and the rights of member states to leave the Union. The deliberate exclusion of Christianity’s role in the development of European culture and values remained.  

Art, Love, and Creation

I have argued before here that art is one of the things that humans do which most fully constitutes our humanity, and sets our nature apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. In this post, I would like to take a look at what the practice of art (in all its forms) might say about our relationship to our Creator, and how an assessment of what art is fundamentally all about might shed some light on how our salvation is worked out in the temporal sphere, as we endeavour to uncover more of our true selves, which are ‘hid with Christ, in God’ (Colossians 3:3).

To help me with this task, I will be relying heavily on Rowan Williams’ book Grace and Necessity, in which he reflects at length on the question of what art truly is, and what it may tell us about the true nature of the world around us (i.e.; that the world, especially as encountered and uncovered by the artist, always suggests something more, speaks to us of how things are not only what they are, but immeasurably more). However, I would like to focus on an element of his book which is more immediately to do with the resonances that can be found between the creativity of man, and the timeless, gratuitous act of divine Creation.

Firstly, I shall look at our creative work in the arts, and what this may suggest about the life of the Christian. With reference to the writing of Flannery O’Connor, Williams discusses the artist’s striving to deliver characters with absolute integrity and coherence, characters that make sense, seem real and speak to us not because of any particular ‘message’ invested in them by the author, but because they are utterly themselves – a new creation:

O’Connor is claiming that instead of beginning from some kind of search for a metaphor, the imagination shapes a character whose own structural integrity within the fiction produces an excess of meaning which offers a metaphorical possibility…What matters is the inner coherence of the person drawn. Absent this, we have once again the artist’s will emerging as the motor force in composition; no obedience, no sense of an imperative…

…You have to find what you must obey, artistically; and finding it is finding that which exists in relation to more than your will and purpose – finding the depth of alternative embodiment in the seen landscape, the depth of gratuitous capability in the imagined character (when what you want to imagine will not come) and so on.

Grace and Necessity (2005), pp.143&147.

            Just as the artist must strive to deliver a work of ‘structural integrity’, we, in trying to live out lives of Christian discipleship, must also try to be find our inner coherence, our integrity, in obedience to the vision we have received – namely Jesus Christ. As the artist’s task is a proper response to what is received in reality, even if what is received is in glimpses, we must also respond to what has been revealed for us, and be obedient to that task. Original Sin can in large part be said to be an undoing of that inner harmony and integrity – the working out of our salvation is in large part, by the grace of God, in restoring us to it.

This of course means facing the truth about ourselves in the light of that ultimate reality which is Jesus Christ. Just as the artist must strip away layers of their own ego – must ‘dispossess’ themselves of ‘what you want to imagine’ – so that they are more able to respond honestly to the particular vision, the particular piece of work, that they are trying to re-present, we also must constantly strive to engage honestly with who we are, who we are called to be, and the depth of the gap between those two realities. The Christian life is one of endeavouring to reorient the will, which is always seeking to assert itself in ways that undermine our proper integrity, with reality as we now know it to be – to lose our lives that we might save them.

Whilst the artistic process can shed some light on that process by which we uncover our true selves, hidden with Christ in God, it can also reveal to what extent the artist, whether they are committed to a theistic metaphysic or not, necessarily must – if they are going about their art honestly and with the intention of making something good, something real – draw attention to the fact that the material world always carries an excess of meaning. Any prolonged attention given to the world around us will lead us to consider the fact that it seems to ebb towards transcendence, to point beyond itself to deeper patterns of significance and meaning:

Human making that is more than functional, more than problem-solving, gives us some clue as to what the theologian means by creation, the setting in being of something that is both an embodiment of what is thought of conceived and also a radically independent reality with its own logic and integrity unfolding over time…

…The artist not only uncovers what is generative in the world, but what is generative in him or herself, the alignments or attunements that make possible an art that is more than repetition or imitation.

ibid, pp.160&162.

            For the artist, this discovery (whether consciously articulated in theological terms or not) always involves a discovery of what our limits are – what inner resources might be expressed in trying to do justice to this particular piece of art. For the disciple, we also discover our true selves the more we are obedient to the true image of humanity revealed in Christ. But for God, this is not the case – He does not have to discover anything about Himself, nor can he exhaust his own possibilities. There is always more to give, but never more that He can know Himself:

But though divine creation cannot be imitated, what it does is to define the nature of a love that is involved in making. It is both the gift of self and the gift of self. It bestows life unreservedly on what is other, but the life it bestows is a real selfhood, a solid reality. It is not the exercise of an arbitrary will, one subject seeking to control another…

…The most profoundly free action human beings can take in relation to their identity, the action that most fully realises the image of God, in theological terms, is to elect to discover and mould what they are in the process of “remaking” the world in a love that is both immeasurably different from God’s (because it is to do with the self’s self-identity in history and material relationship) and yet endowed with some share in it (because it is always approaching self-dispossession).

ibid, pp.164-165.

            The ‘dispossession’ of the artist, and of the disciple, is analogous to God’s way of creating, but only to an extent. Ultimately, God cannot be imitated – but the way that He works in creation can be approximated, even participated in, to the degree that the artist or the Christian gives themselves over to what is made (either the art, or the self as new creation) in this mode of utterly self-forgetful, free, and gratuitous love. The artist must, if they are to produce something with integrity and coherence, love the work that is made, and the disciple, if they are to ‘progress’ in the spiritual life, must love Christ – both who He is and what is revealed about us in Him.

The image of God as an artist has biblical precedent, most famously in Jeremiah’s vision of God as the Potter, moulding and reworking His people time and again in response to their faithlessness and iniquity; and also the first chapter of Genesis telescopes in on the grand processes of growth and birth on earth, culminating in the creation of the animals, and finally humanity, all directed by God’s eternal Word. God’s creative work is a key element of the biblical story, and something re-emphasised in his dealing with Israel, particularly through the prophets.

What we do not quite get a sense of in these passages though, is just how completely He gives of Himself in the ongoing act of creation. This is something that is inextricably linked to the image of God as Love which we receive in the New Testament, the implications of which were elucidated by the Church over the course of its early centuries. The dogma of the Holy Trinity tells us that God gives freely and completely of Himself in creation because He gives freely and completely of Himself eternally – to Himself. He loves because He is Love, and loved Himself before He loved the world into being.

There is no sense in which God can be said to exhaust Himself, either in creation or in the Incarnation, but He is always giving Himself, and what we meet in these acts is a real encounter with the living God. In these encounters, we also thus meet the reality which is suggested in all our creative endeavours – what we uncover, what calls out to us in the material world when we reflect on it and attempt to re-present it from a new perspective, always contains glimpses of the divine. God’s love ‘spills over’ through His work, and His creation is teeming with pointers towards the truth which He would have us know and embrace.

Perhaps then, one can say that all art – all good art anyway – is, or at least speaks of, the sacred, whether the artist would give what they are trying to say this name or not. Certainly though, all discipleship can be said to be a creative endeavour, in which we too strive to cooperate with God in restoring the divine image obscured by our sin; and most surely of all, the life that calls both disciple and artist to their respective acts of dispossession and self-discovery, does not depend on whether we discover it or not, but gives itself ceaselessly and without partiality – for God is Love, and is so eternally.