Archive for May, 2009

Here Chesterton takes a swipe at religious journalists. That is, secular journalists who write about religion. If you’ve ever read any of this stuff, even in your local paper, you’ll know what he’s talking about. I’ve heard that, to this day, Britain has a history of being especially bad at this.

…they will complain that a sermon cannot be interrupted, and call a pulpit a coward’s castle; though they do not call an editor’s office a coward’s castle. It would be unjust both to journalists and priests; but it would be much truer of journalists. The clergyman appears in person and could easily be kicked as he came out of church; the journalist conceals even his name so that nobody can kick him. They write wild and pointless articles and letters in the press about why the churches are empty, without even going there to find out if they are empty, or which of them are empty. Their suggestions are more vapid and vacant than the most insipid curate in a three-act farce…

-G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, p.?

Recalling Lewis’s comments on how what you see when you look inside yourself is only the trace remains of what was really happening:

In introspection we try to look “inside ourselves” and see what is going on. But nearly everything that was going on a moment before is stopped by the very act of our turning to look at it. Unfortuntely this does not mean that introspection finds noting. On the contrary, it finds precisely what is left behind by the suspension of all our normal activities; and what is left behind is mainly mental images and physical sensations. The great error is to mistake this mere sediment or track or byproduct for the activities themselves. That is how men may come to believe that thought is only unspoken words, or the appreciation of poetry only a collection of mental pictures, when these in reality are what the thought or the appreciation, when interrupted, leave behind – like the swell at sea, working after the wind has dropped.

-C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, p.219

So Lewis kept looking inside to figure out what was up with this “Joy” he would feel on occasion.

Now what, I asked myself were all my delectable mountains and western gardens but sheer Fantasies? Had they not revealed their true nature by luring me, time and again, into undisguisedly erotic reverie or the squalid nightmare of Magic? In reality, of course…my own experience had repeatedly shown that these romantic images had never been more than a sort of flash, or even slag, thrown off by the occurrence of Joy, that those mountains and gardens had never been what I wanted but only symbols which professed themselves to be no more, and that every effort to treat them as the real Desirable soon honestly proved itself to be a failure.

He began to see that his “Joy” was nothing in itself. It could not be grasped. It was only a signpost pointing to something else. The Joy was a desiring. But desiring what? A state of mind? The origin? The creator?

I perceived that just as I had been wrong in supposing that I really desired the Garden of the Hesperides, so also I had been equally wrong in supposing that I desired Joy itself. Joy itself, considered simply as an event in my own mind, turned out to be of no value at all. All the value lay in that of which Joy was the desiring. And that object, quite clearly, was no state of my own mind or body at all.

In a way, I had proved this by elimination. I had tried everything in my own mind and body; as it were, asking myself, “is it this you want? Is it this?” Last of all I had asked if Joy itself was what I wanted; and, labeling it “aesthetic experience,” had pretended I could answer Yes. But that answer too had broken down.

Lewis’s carefully formulated philosophies began crumble. His teaching began to suffer. He felt like he had a choice, though God was chasing HIM at the same time:

if Shakespeare and Hamlet could ever meet, it must be Shakespeare’s doing.

As he neared his conversion, the focus of his thoughts and troubles turned from Joy to the more usual eternal things. Chesterton’s apologetic The Everlasting Man was instrumental here. He first accepted a general theism, and then finally Christianity after realizing how strange (yet fitting) Jesus Christ was.

On the last page, he mentions joy again in this way:

But what, in conclusion, of Joy? for that, after all, is what the story has mainly been about. To tell the truth, the subject has lost nearly all interest for me since I became a Christian. I believe (if the thing were at all worth recording) that the old stab, the old bittersweet, has come to me as often and as sharply since my conversion as at any time of my life whatever. But I now know that the experience, considered as a state of my own mind, had never had the kind of importance I once gave it. It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer. While that other was in doubt, the pointer naturally loomed large in my thoughts.

When we are lost in the woods the sight of a signpost is a great matter. He who first sees it cries, “Look!” The whole party gathers round and stares. But when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare, or not much…

I recall during my stint as a dancer (don’t ask) my teacher at the time was a cosmopolitan New York lady stuck in the middle of nowhere Idaho holding down a part-time position to pay a few bills. She was not religious, but thought about art and beauty a lot. She spoke often of “the sublime”. I think she could see the signposts clearly too. Unfortunately, they still loomed large in her mind and the enemy (through various means) had largely cut her off from looking for something “other and outer”.

Oddly enough (or maybe not so oddly in light of his closing paragraph), Lewis’s own Christian apologetic, makes virtually no mention of these signposts of Joy as a pathway to God. He sticks with basic foundational ethics. Only in the closest thing to Lewis’s successor (N.T. Wright) did I find an apologetic (Simply Christian) that took this “longing for beauty” into account early on.

I can recall seeing some of these signposts myself as a child. I guess I could just say they were “moments of beauty” or “aesthetic experience” that sent chills up my spine. And that would not be inaccurate.

  • At 13, sitting in the trumpet section of the orchestra, the choir directly behind me a few feet, as we rehearsed William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast.
  • At the same age, hearing Eithne Bhraonáin sing of the Red Star (fans will recognize this, move along, move along).
  • And even shortly after, reading Lewis’s own Perelandra for the first time, when Ransom realizes he must kill his enemy with his bare hands.

But it’s only more recently that I’ve realized all these things were really pointing to God the creator. They are not the end all. My desire to participate in them was the desire to be a sub-creator. Seeking them as pleasure leads to disappointment 100% of the time.

It makes me want to enter the cleregy more than to work hard at being a musician, though I still love music. Do you deal in signposts or in the destination? Both I say.

Continuing on my Inklings kick, and this time prompted by my wife, I read C.S. Lewis’s selective autobiography this past week. Selective because he leaves out huge chunks about his life and work and focusses primarily on his education, and conversion to atheism and eventually Christianity.

To be honest, this is one of those books I had never picked up because of the title. “Surprised by Joy” sounded like something sappy from Max Lucado. I should have known better.

In it, Lewis turns his keen eye inside on the feelings of “Joy” that he felt first as a child reading Norse poetry – a poignant feeling he could occasionally find walking in the woods. It’s very much different than pleasure or happiness. In fact, the things that bought Lewis momentary glimpses of joy were often sad. And yet, they elicited a deep emotional (and not just emotional) response from somewhere deep inside. Even through his years as a steadfast atheist, these joys kept nagging at the back of his mind. They are what eventually drove him to faith in an outside creator and finally to Christianity.

He describes his earliest three memories of joy as such:

The first is itself the memory of a memory. As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of earlier at the Old House when my brother had brought his toy garden [described earlier] into the nursery. It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton’s “enormous bliss” of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to “enormous”) comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what?

The second glimpse came through Squirrel Nutkin; though it only, though I loved all the Beatrix Potter books. But the rest of them were merely entertaining; it administered the shock, it was a trouble. It troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn. It sounds fantastic to say that one can be enamored of a season, but that is something like what happened; and, as before, the experience was one of intense desire.

These are very deep things. Not just mere “aesthetic experience”. It’s no wonder they are difficult to describe. The third glimpse he mentions I was more familiar with, as it is discussed in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography:

The third glimpse came through poetry. I had become fond of Longfellow’s Saga of King Olaf: found of it in a casual, shallow way for its story and its vigorous rhythms. But then, and quite different from such pleasures, and like a voice from far more distant regions, there came a moment when I idly turned the pages of the book and found the unrhymed translation of Tegner’s Drapa and read:

I heard a voice that cried,
Balder the beautiful
Is dead, is dead.

I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote) and then, as in the other examples, found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it.

He concludes this section:

The reader who finds these three episodes of no interest need read this book no further, for in a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else.

I’ll add that the rest of this blog post will likely be of no interest to you either.

In trying to recapture the third experience, he became interested in Norse mythology and anything related, such as Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

First, you will misunderstand everything unless you realize that, at the time, Asgard and the Valkryies seemed to me incomparably more important than anything else i my experience – than [school, sex, career]. More shockingly, they seemed much more important than my steadily growing doubts about Christianity…If the Northernness seemed then a bigger ting than my religion, that may partly have been because my attitude toward it contained elements which my religion ought to have contained and did not.

Religion as it had been taught and communicated to him so far, had not contained anything so powerful. It was form, rules to follow and a distant god. As he grew older, he experienced the joy less frequently until one day it hit him smack in the face while reading George MacDonald’s Phantastes:

The woodland journeyings in that story, the ghostly enemies, the ladies both good and evil, were close enough to my habitual imagery to lure me on without the perception of a change. It is as if I were carried sleeping across the frontier, or as if I had died in the old country and could never remember how I came alive in the new. For in once sense the new country was exactly like the old. I met there all that had already charmed me in Malory, Spense, Morris, and Yeats. But in another sense all was changed. I did not yet know (and I was long in learning) the name of the new quality, the bright shadow, that rested on the travels of Anodos. I do now. It was Holiness. For the first time the song of the sirens sounded like the voice of my mother or my nurse. Here were old wives’ tales; there was nothing to be proud of in enjoying them.

It was as though the voice which had called to me from the world’s end were not speaking at my side. It was with me in the room, or in my own body, or behind me. If it had once eluded me by its distance, it now eluded me by proximity – something too near to see, too plain to be understood, on this side of knowledge. It seemed to have been always with me; if I could ever have turned my head quick enough I should have seized it. Now for the first time I felt that it was out of reach not because of something I could not do but because of something I could not stop doing. If I could only leave off, let go, unmake myself, it would be there. Meanwhile, in this new region all the confusions that had hitherto perplexed my search for Joy were disarmed.

I find I relate strongly to the passage highlighted above. In reading it, what immediately comes to mind are two memories of music where this exact same mystery is captured:

When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse,
Out of the corner of my eye.
I turned to look but it was gone.
I cannot put my finger on it now.
The child is grown, the dream is gone.

This from Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb. Yes I know it’s a song about drugs, but it’s about how the drugs took this very thing he is describing AWAY. Covered up the joy, and the pain with it.

And in a directly Christian rendering, with God on his mind as the object or (as we shall see later SOURCE, not object) of this feeling:

What can I do with my obsession?
With the things I cannot see
Is there madness in my being?
Is it wind that blows the trees?
Sometimes you’re further than the moon
Sometimes you’re closer than my skin
And you surround me like a winter fog
You’ve come and burned me with a kiss

That from an early Delerious? cut, Obsession.

Back to that highlighted section:

It was with me in the room, or in my own body, or behind me. If it had once eluded me by its distance, it now eluded me by proximity – something too near to see, too plain to be understood, on this side of knowledge. It seemed to have been always with me; if I could ever have turned my head quick enough I should have seized it.

I’ve always felt that whatever he is recounting here describes my longing for God a lot more suitably than Pascal’s “God Shaped Hole”, though that is certainly a valuable idea when approaching this from another angle.

I’ve run out of time. I read and write these things while sitting at the coffee shop downtown before work, early in the morning. The office calls. I guess I’ll call this part 1 of 2 and finish it up later!

I have noticed that most modern history is driven to something like sophistry, first to soften the sharp transition from animals to men, and then to soften the sharp transition from heathens to Christians. Now the more we really read in a realistic spirit of those two transitions the sharper we shall find them to be.

-G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, p.7

For those looking to sharpen the first line (between animal and man) some of the proponents of intelligent design (though frequently attacked) have some excellent material.

For the second, anthropological line, nothing sharpens Rene Girard.

Though he eventually seemed to soften a bit, there are definitely some things to affirm in Lewis’s initial impressions of the primary activities of the institutional church:

…thought I liked clergymen as I liked bears, I had as little wish to be in the Church as in the zoo.

It was, to being with, a kind of collective; a wearisome “get-together” affair. I couldn’t yet see how a concern of that sort should have anything to do with one’s spiritual life. To me, religion ought to have been a matter of good men praying alone and meeting by twos and threes to talk of spiritual matters. And then the fussy, time-wasting botheration of it all! the bells, the crowds, the umbrellas, the notices, the bustle, the perpetual arranging and organizing. Hymns were (and are) extremely disagreeable to me. Of all musical instruments I liked (and like) the organ least. Thus my churchgoing was a merely symbolical and provisional practice. If it in fact helped to move me in the Christian direction, I was and am unaware of this.

-C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, p.234

He then goes on to describe how the bulk of his spiritual growth came via his contact with one close mentor and at times a handful of close friends. Isn’t that where the most meaningful changes have happened in your life too?

Lewis uses some strong language to describe the first time he looked on his own spirit in the light of the Holy Spirit:

For the first time I examined myself with a seriously practical purpose. And there I found what appalled me; a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion.

-C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, p.226

This passage on introspection from Lewis is one of the very best observations in the entire book. It’s worth reading it twice. I’ll have a ton more to say about this at some point.

In introspection we try to look “inside ourselves” and see what is going on. But nearly everything that was going on a moment before is stopped by the very act of our turning to look at it. Unfortuntely this does not mean that instrospection finds noting. On the contrary, it finds precisely what is left behind by the suspension of all our normal activities; and what is left behind is mainly mental images and physical sensations. The great error is to mistake this mere sediment or track or byproduct for the activities themselves. That is how men may come to believe that thought is only unspoken words, or the appreciation of poetry only a collection of mental pictures, when these in reality are what the thought or the appreciation, when interrupted, leave behind – like the swell at sea, working after the wind has dropped.

-C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, p.219

Lewis on reading Chesterton (before he became a Christian):

I did not need to accept what Chesterton said in order to enjoy it. His humor was of the kind which I like best – not “jokes” imbedded in the page like currants in a cake, still less (what I cannot endure), a general tone of lippancy and jocularity, but the humor which is not in any way separable from te argument but is rather (as Aristotle would say) the “bloom” on dialectic itself. The sword glitters not because the swordsman set out to make it glitter but because he is fighting for his life and therefore moving it very quickly.

-C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, p.191

Speaking of his friend Ulster Scot, Lewis writes:

Having said that he was an Atheist, I hasten to add that he was a “Rationalist” of the old, high and dry nineteenth-century type. For atheism has come down in the world since those days, and mixed itself with politics and learned to dabble in dirt. The anonymous donor who now sends me anti-God magazines hopes, no doubt, to hurt the Christian in me; he really hurts the ex-Atheist. I am ashamed that my old mates…should have sunk to what they are now.

-C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, p.139

Lewis respected careful reasoning. I doubt he would be impressed by the crop of today’s atheists who have never dealt robustly with philosophy, anthropology and such. They are cruising in the ships of bio-evolution (there is no creator) or pop-psychology (religion is a mental disease), whose fare is cheap and it’s crew more form than substance.

You ever have one of those days where you realize something that, in hindsight, has been blindingly apparent for years?

Much to the dismay, I’m sure of my pro mathemetician friend Eric, I must now confess, that I hate math.

I took plenty of math in school. I took those college correspondence courses in high school. I was all geared up to be an Engineer. I think people think of me as a “mathy” guy, but I’m actually not. I can just finally admit it.

I identify completely with this quote from Lewis on the subject:

I could never have gone far in any science because on the path of every science the lion of Mathematics lies in wait for you. Even in Mathematics, whatever could be done by mere reasoning (as in simple geomtry) I did with delight; but the moment calculation came in I was helpless. I grasped the principles but my ansers were always wrong. Yet though I could never have been a scientist, I had scientific a well as imaginative impulses, and I love ratiocination [the process of exact thought].

-C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, p.137

Oh the agony. I remember doing my calculus homework and getting 100% of the answer right, but it took me three to four times longer to do it than my peers, from making calculation errors. The more calculating parts of music theory were sometimes the same way.

People think I use math now at my job, as a database programmer. Ha! Whatever. I write programs that do all the work for me. I don’t calculate a dang thing, unless it’s a quick estimate with the calculator of how many itterations something is going to take. Basic statistics. All good stuff.

I hate math though. I feel better about not becoming an engineer now.