Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Bible of Father Brown

N., as I have already said, was a man who read his Bible. That was what was the matter with him. When will people understand that it is useless for a man to read his Bible unless he also reads everybody else’s Bible? A printer reads a Bible for misprints. A Mormon reads his Bible, and finds polygamy; a Christian Scientist reads his, and finds we have no arms and legs. 

N. was an old Anglo-Indian Protestant soldier. Now, just think what that might mean; and, for Heaven’s sake, don’t cant about it. It might mean a man physically formidable living under a tropic sun in an Oriental society, and soaking himself without sense or guidance in an Oriental Book. 

Of course, he read the Old Testament rather than the New. Of course, he found in the Old Testament anything that he wanted — lust, tyranny, treason. Oh, I dare say he was honest, as you call it. But what is the good of a man being honest in his worship of dishonesty?
GK Chesterton, The Sign of the Broken Sword

Reflection – Leaving aside GKC’s regrettable prejudice (typical, alas, for an Englishman of his day) against the cultures and civilizations of Asia, this little bit of Brown-ian wisdom really pertains to the whole question of how we read the Bible, how we read it wrongly, and how we are to read it rightly.

‘It is useless to read your Bible unless you read everyone else’s Bible’. Chesterton really has a way of putting very complex matters into pithy little epigrams. This is precisely the mind of the Catholic Church regarding Scripture. We read it, not as isolated individuals getting bits and pieces of random sense out of it as we can, but as a community of believers united in a common reading guided by a common faith.

It is fashionable these days, among the New Atheists, to take all the cruel bits and pieces of the Bible—and there are many of them—and parade them around as proof of what a horror religion is, and particularly the Christian religion. The practice of haram warfare, where all living creatures from babies at the breast to animals in field are slaughtered to the last one, the death of the first-born in Egypt, the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter—if you want horror, the Bible can deliver horror.

And if you are simply reading ‘your Bible’ and no one else’s, you may come to any kind of conclusion about all that. In the story quoted above, the sad character concludes that cruelty and vice are acceptable to God; for the New Atheists, the conclusion is that religion is evil nonsense.

Catholics read their Bible as part of a community of believers who extend 2000 years into the past (Sacred Tradition) and across the entire world in the present (the sensus fidelium), and who gather in their reading around a divinely mandated authority (the magisterium of bishops under the Pope). And the Catholic reading of this whole complex messy book is thus remarkably nuanced, thoughtful, careful, and yields profundity of insight and depth of reflection such as a New Atheist would not dream possible.

While it is far too much to go into the whole thing in a blog post, our basic Catholic sense is that we read all the earlier Scriptures through the later ones, and elevate the four Gospels in particular as the interpretive key to the entire Bible. The Old Testament is fundamentally the story of humanity—messy, mixed-up, ugly-beautiful, good-bad, chaotic, tumultuous, passionate, violent, lusty, hungry, hopeful, despairing humanity—met at each turn by this most mysterious God who only gradually reveals Himself to them in full.

The earlier parts of the Old Testament—haram warfare, etc.—are a very incomplete and poor revelation of this God. The later parts—the late prophets with their extension of God’s promises to all the nations, for example—are a more complete one.

But it is the Gospel revelation of Jesus Christ that gives the right sense and proper meaning to every bit of the Scriptures, and we have 2000 years of comprehensive sweeping commentary and lectio divina on just how this is done, from the most horrific tales of violence to the most obscure precepts of the Mosaic Law. In Christ, and only in Christ, do we read these and understand anything of what they mean here and now.

So that is the Bible of Fr. Brown, and of Chesterton, and of myself, too (not that that matters much). And that is our answer to that aspect of the New Atheist critique of religion.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Diagnosis of Father Brown

“What on earth is that?” asked Father Brown, and stood still. “Oh, a new religion,” said Flambeau, laughing; “one of those new religions that forgive your sins by saying you never had any. Rather like Christian Science, I should think. The fact is that a fellow calling himself Kalon (I don’t know what his name is, except that it can’t be that) has taken the flat just above me. I have two lady typewriters underneath me, and this enthusiastic old humbug on top. He calls himself the New Priest of Apollo, and he worships the sun.”

“Let him look out,” said Father Brown. “The sun was the cruellest of all the gods. But what does that monstrous eye mean?”

“As I understand it, it is a theory of theirs,” answered Flambeau, “that a man can endure anything if his mind is quite steady. Their two great symbols are the sun and the open eye; for they say that if a man were really healthy he could stare at the sun.”

“If a man were really healthy,” said Father Brown, “he would not bother to stare at it.”

“Well, that’s all I can tell you about the new religion,” went on Flambeau carelessly. “It claims, of course, that it can cure all physical diseases.”

“Can it cure the one spiritual disease?” asked Father Brown, with a serious curiosity.

“And what is the one spiritual disease?” asked Flambeau, smiling.

“Oh, thinking one is quite well,” said his friend.
GK Chesterton, The Eye of Apollo

Reflection – I’m pretty sure I’ve quoted this bit of GKC before on this blog, at least the last exchange of Flambeau and Fr. Brown. ‘The one spiritual disease is to think one is quite well’—this is just about as good a definition of pride as has ever been come up with, and it is a throwaway line in a detective story that is about something else entirely.

Well, it’s not exactly about something else, as the practitioners of this religion in the story proceed to stare at the sun and presume to defy gravity, with tragic results. And, as is so often the case, the haughty pride of human mastery and dominance is at the service of rather baser drives and motives.

But I promised not to spoil the stories in this series of Brown posts. It is, though, quite an insight on the part of GKC. Elsewhere, he has written that just in the normal course of human affairs we are generally ready to excuse people of all sorts of weaknesses and forgive all manner of sins, if the person himself regards it as a weakness or a sin.

It is when this blasted pride enters in, when the person is not only a lecher, but is puffed up and proud of himself as a lady-killer (to use good old fashioned language), when the person is not only tight fisted with money, but is proud of her thrift and sneers at the profligacy of others, when the person is not only prone to outbursts of temper, but flatters himself as a brave truth-teller—it is when human weakness is wed to human haughtiness, that it is harder in the normal course of affairs to be merciful.

Pride is of the devil, and it is an ugly thing indeed. It seems paradoxical that the most healthy thing we can do is readily admit our lack of health, the most sane thing we can do is admit that we are a little bit crazy, the strongest position out of which to live is to know and accept one’s own weakness.

But the fundamental reality here, the reality that this haughty arrogant pride of complacency and self-sufficiency denies, is that we are made for relationship, for communion first with God, then with one another, and indeed with the whole of the cosmos in its created structures (this is why the healthy man would not bother to stare at the sun). And so the condition of the human person, fundamentally a condition of neediness, of dependency, is in fact a healthy and happy state of being.

‘It is not good for man to be alone.’ The first thing in the Bible, in all of creation really, that is ‘not good’ is this deadly isolation of the human person. We are not made to be ‘quite well’ on our own terms and according to our own efforts and will. We are meant to receive wellness—in Biblical Greek, the word is soterios, which is the same word used for ‘salvation’—as a gift from Another. And the condition for receiving that gift on our part is the deep humility of knowing we need it, of knowing ourselves to be ‘not well’ and hence seeking and longing for the wellness that comes from our God.

Complacency, and the pride that underlies it, kill the spiritual life in us like nothing else can. Humility, and the eager open receptivity it engenders in us, is the very life of the soul that brings us to faith, hope, and love. We are not well, and so we become very well indeed. We are well, and so we perish everlastingly.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Notice Board of Father Brown

“Ah, yes, these modern infidels appeal to their reason; but who can look at those millions of worlds and not feel that there may well be wonderful universes above us where reason is utterly unreasonable?”

“No,” said the other priest; “reason is always reasonable, even in the last limbo, in the lost borderland of things. I know that people charge the Church with lowering reason, but it is just the other way. Alone on earth, the Church makes reason really supreme. Alone on earth, the Church affirms that God himself is bound by reason.”

The other priest raised his austere face to the spangled sky and said: “Yet who knows if in that infinite universe —?”

“Only infinite physically,” said the little priest, turning sharply in his seat, “not infinite in the sense of escaping from the laws of truth… Reason and justice grip the remotest and the loneliest star. Look at those stars. Don’t they look as if they were single diamonds and sapphires? Well, you can imagine any mad botany or geology you please. Think of forests of adamant with leaves of brilliants. Think the moon is a blue moon, a single elephantine sapphire. But don’t fancy that all that frantic astronomy would make the smallest difference to the reason and justice of conduct. On plains of opal, under cliffs cut out of pearl, you would still find a notice-board, ‘Thou shalt not steal…’”

[The other priest said], “Well, I think that other worlds may perhaps rise higher than our reason. The mystery of heaven is unfathomable, and I for one can only bow my head.”

Then, with brow yet bent and without changing by the faintest shade his attitude or voice, he added:

“Just hand over that sapphire cross of yours, will you? We’re all alone here, and I could pull you to pieces like a straw doll.”
GK Chesterton, The Blue Cross

Reflection – The other day I had a quote from GKC’s Fr. Brown stories, and it got me thinking that there’s quite a bit in those stories besides detecting—little moments scattered here and there of Chestertonian wisdom on the lips of his little round priest. So, and as a light change from the somewhat heavy material from Catherine Doherty lately, I thought I’d spend some days mining ‘The Wisdom of Fr. Brown’ for gems. I will try to do so without spoiling the stories for those who haven’t read them.

Here, for example, we have the astonishing (perhaps, to us) statement that God Himself is bound by reason. Furthermore, that the moral law flows from reason. And that therefore the moral law is cosmic and universal and admits of no exception.

It is telling, of course, that the ‘other priest’ (who of course is not a priest at all, but an impostor and thief) is advancing his metaphysical theories about universes above reason and bowing his head in piety before the unknowability of it all, not out of great humility and wise modesty before the mystery, but because he wants to steal the sapphire cross Fr. Brown is carrying.

So often the webs of theories we spin about relativism and the infinite plasticity of the moral law, its endless variation and the provincial and provisional nature of the commandments all boil down to that: we want to do what we want to do. We work up all sorts of ingenious arguments for why we cannot really know what is and what is not, what the mind of God is and what morality might mean in this infinite expanding universe… but really, it’s all in service of our being able to steal this, go to bed with that, lie about x, cheat about y, and so forth.

So Fr. Brown’s notice board ‘Thou shalt not steal’ at the foot of the pearl cliffs is a sharp, square little reminder that all of that is bosh. The moral law springs from the mind of God, who has been kind enough to allow us access to it through our own use of sacred reason (and many, many human beings have used their reason to fundamentally figure it out, at least the main lines of it, with remarkable agreement), and for those of us who may be either too thick or too lazy or too rebellious to use our reason thus (those who just want to take that sapphire cross no matter what) He has revealed it in His Scriptures and entrusted it to His Church, which has faithfully taught that law for 2000 years.

That is the notice board, not some artificial construct imposing some silly arbitrary rule upon us, but a sign telling us what we already know, or should know, but choose to forget or deny or ignore. The Ten Commandments and the moral teaching of the Church are the notice board for our rebellious and dense humanity, and their jurisdiction is universal.

Monday, November 17, 2014

What Does Freedom Mean?

I love you, O Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,
my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.

I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies.
The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of destruction assailed me;
the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me.

In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help.
From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears…
He sent from on high, he took me; he drew me out of many waters…
He rescued me from my strong enemy and from those who hated me,
for they were too mighty for me.

They confronted me in the day of my calamity, but the Lord was my support.
He brought me out into a broad place; he saved me, because he loved me…

With the merciful you show yourself merciful;
with the blameless man you show yourself blameless;
 with the purified you show yourself pure;
and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous.

 For you save a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down.
 For it is you who light my lamp; the Lord my God lightens my darkness.
 For by you I can run against a troop, and by my God I can leap over a wall.
Psalm 18

Reflection – This is only bits and pieces of Psalm 18, which is quite lengthy. I wish I had space to include the whole psalm, which is very beautiful, picturesque and stirring.

This psalm has a personal reference for me, as I chose as the scripture for my ordination card Ps 18: 19—‘he saved me because he loved me.’ The accompanying image for my card was the San Damiano cross of St. Francis. It seemed to me, ten years ago, that the most important thing by far was to communicate the merciful saving love of God to people, definitively given to all in Jesus Christ; the ensuing years have done nothing but confirm and strengthen that conviction.

The verse immediately before that one is a key psalm concept. ‘He brought me forth into a broad place.’ Sometimes this is translated, ‘he brought me forth into freedom.’ The Hebrew language frequently is short on abstract nouns, or they only develop in late Hebrew under Greek influence. So the concept of freedom is conveyed by that of being in an open space, open country, having lots of land to spread out, move around in.

This is actually a pretty theologically and philosophically dense notion of freedom. Our modern notion of freedom is very thin, ultimately very empty: I can do what I want to do. Yes, indeed. So you can. If you want to jump off a bridge, you can do it. If you want to cut off your arms, you can do it. You are free – yippee! You go, girl.

Very precise, very exact, and very, very meaningless. I mean, hurray – we are free to destroy ourselves. How lovely. And this is unfortunately not only what the modern world means by freedom, but how a great deal of the modern world actually exercises its freedom. Making choices that actually reduce our life, limit our life, destroy our life.

Biblical freedom means entering a space where life expands outwards, where our potential is increased, where we find ourselves in a bigger world, a space in which our life and being can expand and grow. Freedom, biblically, is intrinsically related to truth, then. For we cannot move and grow and expand unless we are standing on solid ground, on the ground of reality.

But even more so, freedom in the full biblical sense is life in Christ. The open space into which God leads us is the heart of Christ, the place in which our life expands to such an extent that we are truly sharers in God’s life, truly divinized by our participation in Christ’s life in the Father. God is perpetually drawing us into a bigger place, a larger world than we can envision or comprehend, and this is the whole movement of grace in our lives.

He leads us into this open space, saves us because he loves us, and so we can leap walls, conquer armies, shake off the cords of death and Sheol, and all the other lovely prospects Psalm 18 lays out for us. He leads us into this open place first—life in Christ—then in that space empowers us to make choice upon choice, in freedom, that make us more and more free, less and less encumbered, expanding ever outward and upward into the free space of love and truth, purity and mercy.