The Broken Compass

Many, if not most, today consider the idea of guilt to be an oppressive, outdated concept, usually associated with the repressive wiles of institutional religion, and that the only way to achieve a true sense of healing and freedom is by telling ourselves that we are personally not at fault – there is nothing to feel guilty about. It is our upbringing, our environment, our genes, what we’ve been taught at church, etc, that is at the root of our feelings of guilt, which are just that – feelings, that we can be rid of like any other.

The problem is that, whilst it is true that we can become beset by feelings of guilt that are really not due to personal fault (e.g.; due to the controlling behaviour of someone else, or genuine abuses of institutional power, both ecclesiastical and secular, or our parents taking out their frustrations and insecurities on their children, etc), more generally feelings of guilt emerge for a reason – to tell us that we have done something wrong, that we have done something to offend our conscience.

We are all by nature instilled with a moral compass – an innate sense for apprehending the fact that we live in a moral universe, and that there are such things as right and wrong. What might be the right thing to do in particular circumstances, and the nuances of right ethical behaviour are to a certain extent dependent upon the culture into which we are born, and so our consciences need to be formed by our forebears, sharpening the edges of our moral sense, and refining our knowledge of the more subtle aspects of the moral law. However, the feeling that there is such a thing as ‘the Good’ at all is something we are born with, and which can never be wholly eliminated.

This is the problem with telling ourselves that guilt is ‘just’ a feeling, and the consequent rejection of moral objectivity that inevitably follows. Doing this blunts our moral ‘edges’, and renders our moral compasses less effective, so that we are become less sensitive to the promptings of our consciences, and are led into more chaotic and destructive ways of living, but at the same time are still left with some distant sense that what we are doing is wrong. The moral sense can be broken or blunted, but it cannot be removed.

Thus, the removal of guilt from our categories of thought necessarily leads to a repression of our conscience because, no matter how much we muffle it, it continues to remind us of the wrongness of our behaviour. This, ironically, then leads to a much more unhealthy situation than we might have encountered before, where patterns of anxiety and despair build up because our consciences call out to us, adding layer upon layer of authentic guilt that we cannot deal with (because we have chosen to deny it) and become much harder to unravel because we have contrived to push them under the surface in order to ‘heal’ ourselves according to the teachings of guilt-denying psychologies.

True healing, and true liberation from anxiety, can only come when we acknowledge what authentic guilt is telling is – that we have sinned, fallen short of the standard which in our heart of hearts we know to exist and that depends not on ourselves but on a standard far beyond our control – and confess that sin to the One whose standard we have fallen short from. To admit that have sinned – as individuals and as families, as societies, as nations – and confess our sins to God, trusting in His infinite mercy and forgiveness, is the only way our moral compasses can remain in good health.

Furthermore, by acknowledging our guilt and confessing it to God, not only do we keep in touch with what our consciences are telling us, but we are given a really constructive way of dealing with our problems. Because nothing is hidden away, wrapped up in theories of genetic tendencies, anti-institutionalist rhetoric, and skewed concepts of parental authority, we can look at our problems head on, and deal with them, by handing them over to God. It is only in the knowledge that the God from whom our consciences receive their confirmation is also a loving Father who is infinitely more forgiving than we could ever imagine, that we can offer up our faults like this.

True freedom does not come from doing whatever we want, and then suppressing the voice that tells us otherwise. Neither does true healing come from sweeping the genuine feelings of indictment that emerge from our consciences under the carpet – doing this will only require us to find new and even more destructive ways to muffle conscience’s voice (and some much more destructive than others). True healing comes from admitting that we were wrong to do what we did, and confessing those sins to an infinitely loving and merciful God.

True freedom (and healing) comes from responding to the promptings of our moral compass, and keeping that compass in good condition so that, by letting it guide us always to seek the Good, our vices will have less hold on us, and our minds will be unclouded, freer to see the right path amidst so many that would lead us astray, and ultimately into misery. As a society, we need to fix our broken compasses, so that we might find our way again – the only way to start though, is by admitting that they are broken, and by admitting that we need help to fix them.

The Fear of the Lord

Teach me thy way, O LORD, that I may walk in thy truth; unite my heart to fear thy name.

Psalm 86:11

The fear of the Lord is one of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit listed in Isaiah 11:2-3 (along with wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, and piety), so clearly it is something that we should all think about and work to develop in our spiritual life. However, it seems to have become marginalised over the years, partially due to the negative connotations associated with the word ‘fear’ and partly because of a lack of appreciation for the need to truly revere God, and to see Him as utterly other than we are.

This latter issue is perhaps the by-product of a distorted version of the orthodox teaching that we are all made sons and daughters of God through baptism. That we are able to call God ‘Father’ and draw close to Him through Christ is an unbelievable privilege (something I have written about before here), but now it is more often seen as a given. That the God we are able to draw near to is the awesome Lord of all creation, terrible in His majesty and of irreproachable holiness, is something not taken into consideration so much.

For this is what the fear of the Lord is essentially about – to recognise God as God, as the source and ground of all Being, as One whom if we were to ever encounter Him, we would drop to our knees and shield our faces, feeling both unworthy and overcome with the sheer splendour before us (c.f.; Exodus 3:6; 24:17). By recognising Him as such, we thus also recognise the need to respect Him and obey Him, as the source of existence and fount of all goodness – fear of the Lord can also be read as awe of the Lord, and submission to the Lord.

So, with reference to the quotation at the head of this post, when we ask God to ‘unite my heart to fear thy name’, we are asking Him to give us a heart completely in obedience to Him, a heart that puts Him before anything else, precisely because He is God, our Creator and Lord. Another psalm, (this time 131:1), brings this out well also, when it says:

O LORD, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me.

Here the psalmist acknowledges the great gap between what we know (and also what we could ever possibly know) and the infinite wisdom of God. How often now do we hear of those (in academy, pulpit and pew) who seem to think they know better than God, can decide for themselves what it is He would want doing, and that perhaps He made a mistake in this or that area of revelation (or in the means given to preserve and interpret that revelation). Fear of the Lord helps us instead to adopt an attitude of humility before God, trusting that we do not and never can know it all, and that we must trust Him instead, who is all, and so is far beyond us in wisdom.

Another good example from the Psalms is 19:9, which includes within its wonderful rejoicing over God’s law a specific dedication to the fear of the Lord, and which reads:

the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever

Here we get the impression that adopting the attitude of humility and reverence discussed above is something that is itself ‘clean’ – which suggests that it is a pure and honest position, and also that it can be cleansing of the one who adopts it. This tallies well with what we read in the sixth beatitude, where Our Lord says ‘blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’ – i.e.; if we include the fear of the Lord in our spiritual life, our hearts will be purified from ulterior desires, predisposed to receive all that God gives us, and so will better be able to grow in the life of grace, which indeed results in seeing God – both finally in Heaven, and right now, by discerning His will in creation.

The fear of the Lord is also a common theme in the Pentateuch, and is given particular emphasis in Deuteronomy, where Moses reiterates to the Israelites how important it is to order all their lives towards God. For example, in Chapter Ten:

And now Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I command you this day for your good…

…You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve him and cleave to him, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and terrible things which your eyes have seen.

vv.12-13, 21-22.

These passages explicate further the connection between the two concepts seen in Psalm 86:11 – fear of the Lord and walking in His ways. For Moses, if the people of Israel were to love and serve the Lord, they must have it impressed upon them that He is to be held in reverence and awe, to be placed before all else. Otherwise, if He was not recognised by them as utterly holy (both in terms of being completely ‘other’ and completely perfect in His goodness), they would never take seriously the need to follow the commandments laid out by God for their benefit.

Like the loving Father He is, God knows that it is not enough to tell His children that certain patterns of living are constructive and certain others are destructive – they need to know that God is not only loving and merciful, but also very serious about their welfare, more so even than themselves, and that they are not dealing with a ‘celestial Santa Claus’ figure such as He has been turned into by many modern theologians. It is ‘a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God…for our God is a consuming fire’ (Hebrews 10:31; 12:29) and this is something we need to be reminded of, lest we fall into complacency and forget our obligations, both to God and ourselves.

This leads me on to the other aspect of the fear of the Lord that has perhaps led to its falling out of favour – the negative connotations of the word ‘fear’. We know that God is Love, so what have we to do with fearing Him; also, what kind of faith is it that relies on fear for its continuation? These are important and valid points, and the movement to place greater emphasis on love as our primary motivation for following God and doing His will no doubt emerged for good reason – i.e.; an over-emphasis on fear of damnation. However, the balance now seems to have swung too far in the other direction, with many presuming upon both God’s kindness and our chances of salvation.

God is indeed Love, but because of this He wants the best for us, and does not want us to fall into sin – as it is bad for us, and makes us less than we were destined to be. He also knows that there is a possibility for us to become so wedded to darkness that we become blind to the light, to become so embroiled in subtly destructive ways that we cannot find our way out again. Thus, whilst it would be wonderful if everybody did the will of God out of the (undoubtedly much nobler) motive that they love Him, any sober assessment of our own interior lives will show that this is often not the case, and if we are to be kept from sinning, other means must be employed.

It is in these cases that I think fear of falling away is not wholly a bad thing – provided it is not used as a stick to beat people with, or to scare them into enjoying life in perfectly innocent ways, it can be a very good back up for most of us when we don’t feel like we love God as we should. Again, I would certainly not want a return to fear-mongering from the pulpit for its own sake, or to using fear as a primary motivation for getting people to believe (the degree to which this happened in the past I don’t know, but it certainly existed to some extent), but an honest conveyance of the dangers of presumption would I think actually help a great deal of people who would otherwise let their faith drift into complacency.

To return to the main theme though – that of reverence and awe of God as a fundamental Christian virtue – I would also argue that if we are to love God, this particular gift of the Holy Spirit is a necessary prerequisite. For if we do not recognise the great holiness and majesty of God, how far we have fallen short of what we owe to Him, and what He has established should be our true nature as human beings, then how are we ever to truly appreciate the greatness of the Incarnation and Atonement. The great and holy God humbled Himself, taking on our human nature, and suffered the ignominy of our rejection, finally allowing Himself to be subjected to crucifixion, and, out of love, bearing the weight of our sins on the Cross.

To see how great an act of love this was on God’s part, we must first see how great a condescension it was, how great and awesome He truly is, how little He needs us, and how serious our sins against Him are. If we do not have this prior commitment to a fear of the Lord, then it becomes very easy for our faith to become purely presumptuous, our hope to become reduced to temporal concerns, and our love to grow lukewarm, even cold. The fear of the Lord truly is then the beginning of wisdom (c.f.; Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7, 9:10; Sirach 1:14), in the sense that it teaches us the limitations of our own wisdom, the need to place God first in our lives, and the depth of the love He showed us in Jesus Christ.

George Herbert: The Collar and The Call

The two poems I want to share today come from very different places, and represent two dominant aspects of George Herbert’s poetry – that of conflict with or rebellion against God and His will, and that of the profound peace and sense of assurance that comes from giving up the fight and trusting in Him. The first of these (presenting the conflict/rebellion angle) is entitled The Collar, and is presented in a slightly disorderly fashion, both in terms of its rhythm and language, and in terms of its verse alignment, to reflect the chaotic, tumultuous feelings of the author.

The general setting of the poem is of a row breaking out at a dinner table, and its title is more than likely a pun on the word ‘choler’ – ill will or bad temper. The atmosphere of petulant rage conjured up by Herbert here is reflective of the childish rebellion we all feel from time to time towards God, demanding a limitless, but ultimately purposeless, freedom, instead of resting in the obligations we are bound to as followers of Christ, and in which we find true liberty:

 

I struck the board, and cry’d, No more;

                                I will abroad.

    What? shall I ever sigh and pine ?

My lines and life are free; free as the rode,

    Loose as the winde, as large as store.

                                Shall I be still in suit?

    Have I no harvest but a thorn

    To let me bloud, and not restore

What I have lost with cordiall fruit?

                                Sure there was wine,

    Before my sighs did drie it: there was corn

              Before my tears did drown it.

    Is the yeare onely lost to me?

              Have I no bayes to crown it?

No flowers, no garlands gay? all blasted?

                                All wasted?

    Not so, my heart: but there is fruit,

                                And thou hast hands.

              Recover all thy sigh-blown age

On double pleasures:  leave thy cold dispute

Of what is fit, and not forsake thy cage,

                                Thy rope of sands,

Which pettie thoughts have made, and made to thee

    Good cable, to enforce and draw,

                                And be thy law,

    While thou didst wink and wouldst not see.

                                Away; take heed:

                                I will abroad.

Call in thy deaths head there: tie up thy fears.

                                He that forbears

              To suit and serve his need,

                                Deserves his load.

But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wilde,

                                At every word,

    Methought I heard one calling, Childe:

                                And I reply’d, My Lord.

 

The aimless protesting of The Collar, which flits between complaints of the inconstancy of life and the futility of speculation (c.f.; the ‘rope of sands’) ends with calm resolution, the author’s rage interrupted by the voice of God (the ‘Caller’ – another pun perhaps) calling him back to himself, and reminding him that he is a child of God, beloved of Him. The author then replies, with a serenity in sharp distinction to the rest of the poem, and with a childlike affection very different in kind from the petulance that has gone before it, ‘My Lord’ – after all his ranting and raving, he knows that God is for him, and only in Him he can find the peace that he is looking for.

The second poem, entitled The Call, is of a different stripe in general, though there is a point of contact with the final two lines of The Collar, insofar as this latter poem is wholly serene, and could perhaps even describe the frame of mind of one who, having just experienced a fit of self-indulgent rebellion such as is described in The Collar, is now overtaken by a feeling of immense gratitude and reconciliation. The tone of The Call is even melodic (indeed, Vaughan Williams later set it to music), and reads as a gentle ode, or love poem to Jesus, the Way, Truth, and Life.

There is also a lively intimacy to The Call, which Herbert creates by employing each of the nouns of the first line in each stanza to be the subject for the following three lines – this allows him to flesh out the significance of each term, but also to create a sense of circularity, and ultimately familiarity, which makes us feel comfortable, enjoying the peace that the author also enjoys and wishes to communicate. This is compounded by the final line, which ties together all three nouns from the first line of the stanza, adding a sense of completeness and inclusion to the warmth of the preceding lines:

 

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:

Such a Way, as gives us breath:

Such a Truth, as ends all strife:

And such a Life, as killeth death.

 

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:

Such a Light, as shows a feast:

Such a feast, as mends in length:

Such a strength, as makes his guest.

 

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:

Such a Joy, as none can move:

Such a Love, as none can part:

Such a Heart, as joys in love.

 

The final line above, which speaks of ‘such a heart, as joys in love’ could act as a summary of George Herbert’s whole vision. He is constantly striving to communicate the life of faith, and though this sometimes takes the form of struggle or doubt, it is almost always resolved by a feeling of assurance that the author (and so the reader) is beloved of God, regardless of their failings and of the wavering nature of their faith. When Herbert communicates the moments when this sense of assurance and peace are found and embraced, it results in some of the most comforting moments in the English language, so much so that it is easy to forget the skill that has gone into it – it takes a lot of work to make things look as simple and as effortless as Herbert does.

In The Collar and The Call, we have two examples of the extremes of Herbert’s inner life, and extremes with which most readers can empathise. It is his ability to communicate such common (though by no means commonplace) experiences with such simplicity and such guileless profundity that makes Herbert such an enduring poetic voice. As well as this ability to dig deep into the religious experience, and reproduce it in accessible yet deeply insightful forms, one also gets a real sense of the authenticity of Herbert’s voice – we feel that he has truly been there, both raving at the heavens in complaint, and kneeling in calm acceptance of God’s love. This latter quality allows him to be to us more than just a great poet, but a friend in faith as well.

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.