Eternal Ideas

It is the glory and good of Art
That Art remains the one way possible
Of speaking truth,—to mouths like mine, at least.
—ROBERT BROWNING, THE RING AND THE BOOK(1869)
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Meanwhile, a new opportunity beckoned that would aid that quest in a way no one could have predicted. For in December 1901, Chesterton received a “small literary proposal” from the distinguished editor John Morley…Just twenty-seven years old, Chesterton would now join the ranks of Anthony Trollope, Henry James, and Thomas Huxley, who had contributed prior volumes. It was, he would say later, “a crown of what I can only call respectability.”

Kevin Belmonte, Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G. K. Chesterton, from Chapter 6


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An Artist in Words

I cannot remember when I first met Chesterton. I was so much struck by a review of Scott’s Ivanhoe which he wrote for the Daily News that I wrote to him asking who he was and where he came from, as he was evidently a new star in literature.
GEORGE BERNARD SHAW (1937)
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Chesterton’s first real appearance in the literary world of America took place on September 27, 1902, when a review of The Defendant, his first book of collected essays,was published in the New York Times. It was a noteworthy debut.

Kevin Belmonte, Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G. K. Chesterton, from Chapter 5


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And Now For A Career

Life without mystery—a sight of the unseen—simply is not life.
PAUL DWIGHT MOODY, AUGUST 1929

My joy in having begun my life is very great.
G. K. CHESTERTON TO E. C. BENTLEY, MAY 1895
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In 1895, one year after his emergence from despair, Chesterton received communication from an unexpected quarter: an invitation to write for a magazine called the Academy. He had just turned twenty-one, and though he could not have known it, this was a first step toward the career that would dominate the rest of his life: that of a journalist.

Kevin Belmonte, from Defiant Joy, Chapter 4


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A Perfect Storm

When [Chesterton’s] religion was at its lowest point, in the difficult Art School days, he never lost it entirely. “I hung on to religion,” [he later said,] “by one thin thread of thanks.”
Maisie Ward (1943)
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Much as the JDC meant to Chesterton—and it meant all the world to him at this time of his life—he knew that his involvement with the group was bound to change. For by autumn 1892, he had left St. Paul’s School to begin taking art classes at the Slade School of Art and, a bit later in 1893, courses in Latin and English literature at University College, London. The others in JDC could go on together for a while yet, as they, being younger than Chesterton, would not go up to university until the autumn of 1894.

Kevin Belmonte, Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G. K. Chesterton, from Chapter 3


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From Childhood to Boyhood

A true friend is forever a friend.

~George MacDonald, from The Marquess of Lossie (1877)

Many aspects of Chesterton’s early life are well documented. Surprisingly, however, the time when he started school is not one of them. William Oddie, Chesterton’s most authoritative biographer, speculates that since he entered St. Paul’s School in Hammersmith in the same class as boys who were one or two years his junior, he must have been about nine years old when his formal schooling commenced at his first school: Colet House, a preparatory school founded in 1881.

~Kevin Belmonte, from Defiant Joy, Chapter 2


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St. George’s Day

A Gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine,
Y cladd in mightie armes and silver shielde,
Wherein old dints of deepe wounds did remaine,
The cruell markes of many a bloudy fielde;
Yet armes till that time did he never wield:
His angry steede did chide his foming bitt,
As much disdayning to the curbe to yield:
Full jolly knight he seemd, and faire did sitt,
As one for knightly giusts and fierce encounters fitt.

The Faerie Queen (Canto I) by Edmund Spenser


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Man Of Sorrows

After one moment when I bowed my head
And the whole world turned over and came upright
And I came out where the old road shone white,
I walked the ways, and heard what all men said…
They rattle reason out through many a sieve
That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
And all these things are less than dust to me
Because my name is Lazarus and I live

G.K. Chesterton – The Convert


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René Descartes: Early Modern (1596–1650)

Meditationes_de_prima_philosophia_1641

MEDITATIONS

Meditation One

Of the Things of Which We May Doubt

1. Several years have now elapsed since I first became aware that I had accepted, even from my youth, many false opinions for true, and that consequently what I afterward based on such principles was highly doubtful; and from that time I was convinced of the necessity of undertaking once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted, and of commencing anew the work of building from the foundation, if I desired to establish a firm and abiding superstructure in the sciences. But as this enterprise appeared to me to be one of great magnitude, I waited until I had attained an age so mature as to leave me no hope that at any stage of life more advanced I should be better able to execute my design. On this account, I have delayed so long that I should henceforth consider I was doing wrong were I still to consume in deliberation any of the time that now remains for action. To-day, then, since I have opportunely freed my mind from all cares [and am happily disturbed by no passions], and since I am in the secure possession of leisure in a peaceable retirement, I will at length apply myself earnestly and freely to the general overthrow of all my former opinions.

2. But, to this end, it will not be necessary for me to show that the whole of these are false—a point, perhaps, which I shall never reach; but as even now my reason convinces me that I ought not the less carefully to withhold belief from what is not entirely certain and indubitable, than from what is manifestly false, it will be sufficient to justify the rejection of the whole if I shall find in each some ground for doubt. Nor for this purpose will it be necessary even to deal with each belief individually, which would be truly an endless labor; but, as the removal from below of the foundation necessarily involves the downfall of the whole edifice, I will at once approach the criticism of the principles on which all my former beliefs rested.

3. All that I have, up to this moment, accepted as possessed of the highest truth and certainty, I received either from or through the senses. I observed, however, that these sometimes misled us; and it is the part of prudence not to place absolute confidence in that by which we have even once been deceived.


A hundred years ago G.K. Chesterton wrote that man’s reliance on human reason alone had wrongly created an inverse juxtaposition of cognitive humility and individual dogmatism. In plain talk, this means truth must be held with loose hands because it can never fully be known, but people should boldly stand firm as their own moral authority. Nonsense.

As Chesterton rightly said

Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.

Rather than relaying on that which is reasonable to a limited human mind, Chesterton says “The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt—the Divine Reason.”

John Mark Reynolds said this in his book, The Great Books Reader:

Modernity gone wrong has isolated humanity and made human reason autonomous of (and dismissive toward) revelation. Descartes may not have made these errors himself, but the tendencies are there in his writings. The world he helped create also developed disrespect for human experience: if an idea could not be “proven,” then it was disreputable. The more chaotic elements of postmodern thought have been a natural counter-reaction.

Read his work critically, but not overly critically. If one wishes to abandon the modern, one cannot take for granted that one will continue to enjoy all of the good it has produced. One thing is certain: René Descartes is admirably clear, persuasive, and faithful in suggesting the direction he believes we should take.

Is Christianity reasonable?

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Logo

John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

 

 

John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.

 

D I G  D E E P E R


The Beauty of This Immense Light

THE PLACE OF GOD IN THE MEDITATIONS

Thomas Ward

The Meditations of René Descartes is probably the most widely read philosophical text in the Western world. Not only is it rich and challenging, but it’s also a work of literary brilliance. Not since Augustine’s Confessions had there been a philosophical work so personal.

Written in the first-person singular, in a nontechnical idiom (for the most part), any reader can approach the work and begin immediately to grapple with weighty problems. But its brilliance as a piece of literature is most clearly evident in the way its ideas are reinforced through its literary form. In a first-person meditation, Descartes is articulating a philosophical position that places the individual thinker—the meditator—at the logical foundations of philosophical inquiry.

Descartes reserves a prominent role for God in his philosophy, but it might seem that the pride of place is actually reserved for the individual thinker attempting to reason his way out of his solitude, with God introduced merely to ensure that the reconstruction of knowledge can proceed. Indeed, the subsequent philosophical tradition has tended to characterize Descartes’s philosophy in just this way, with him as a reluctant theist. Many echo the sentiments of his contemporary Blaise Pascal, who said, “I cannot forgive Descartes; in all his philosophy he did his best to dispense with God.”

Like the Confessions, however, Meditations is a God-infused book. Most readers these days overlook this fact, tending to write off the more theological aspects and to focus on the meditator’s skeptical arguments and subjective outlook. This is unfair. A proper appreciation of Descartes demands we take his theological thought seriously.

———

So, how does God enter the philosophical picture? Descartes’s fundamental philosophical goal was to discover an absolutely certain foundation of knowledge, and he thought he’d made this discovery in one three-word Latin sentence:

Cogito, ergo sum; I think, therefore I am.

(Roughly the same thought is expressed in different terms in the Meditations; this version is found in Principles of Philosophy.) The idea is that you cannot doubt your own existence, because the act of doubting presupposes that there’s something doing the doubting—the doubter.

Dissatisfied with what he’d been taught at school, Descartes set out to question everything, rejecting each belief that wasn’t certain. In the First Meditation, he walks us through a gauntlet of skeptical arguments, offering reasons for doubting our beliefs in even the most ordinary and obvious things: that there’s a physical world, that you have a body, that other people exist, that God exists, and that 2 + 2 = 4. By the close, it seems skepticism has swept everything aside, that there is nothing but “inextricable darkness.”

However, in the Second Meditation, Descartes realizes there is one thing that simply cannot be doubted: that he exists.

From this single foundation of certainty, Descartes attempts a reconstruction of all our knowledge of the world and of God. Certain at least that he is, he wonders how, if he were the only existing thing, he should have an idea of a supremely perfect, infinite Being.

He first reasons that there is no way he himself could be the source of his idea of God, that God Himself must be and must have given Descartes the idea of Himself; in his beautiful portrayal, the idea of God is “the mark of the craftsman stamped on his work.”

So, Descartes’s world has gone from one to two; first him alone in the darkness, and now him together with God. From here he reflects on God’s nature, in particular His goodness. He reasons it would be inconsistent with God’s goodness that nearly all his beliefs should be utterly false; God, he says, is not a deceiver.

If we’re sufficiently careful in our pursuit of knowledge, then, we can be assured we will reach it. With this argument, Descartes reopens the door to the external world. If we restrict ourselves to believing only those things that we can “clearly and distinctly” perceive, we will not err in our judgment.

———

Perhaps now we can see, minimally, why Pascal’s critique may not be sufficiently charitable. There definitely is a sense in which the self comes before God in Descartes’s system, but there is equally, and arguably more importantly, a sense in which God is before everything else. Let me explain.

For Descartes, the knowledge of oneself comes before the knowledge of God. I don’t mean “before” in a temporal sense, the way we might think of a child gaining self-awareness before she becomes aware of God. I do mean that in an explanation of the justification of our beliefs, knowledge of God (and of the world God has created) follows knowledge of oneself.

In the course of writing Descartes not only uses the Cogito, ergo sum argument to support his other beliefs, he also discovers some of the external conditions that make possible the activity of meditating in the first place. Most significantly, he discovers that his existence and activity must be sustained from moment to moment by God’s continual conservation. Thus, for Descartes, the existence of oneself comes after the existence of God.

We might say that Descartes set out alone to discover God but learned that God was with him in the search.

Thomas Ward is currently a doctoral candidate in UCLA’s Department of Philosophy and holds an MPhil from the University of Oxford.

John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).

Literature’s Illumination Of Theology by Josh Herring

Josh Herring

Theology offers the Christian believer not just a faith which demands belief, but one which makes sense intellectually. As such, theology is a necessarily intricate discipline; probing the revealed thoughts of God is no light, simple task. Christian theology done right, whether it is biblical, systematic, or historical, brings the minds of the current generation into conversation with those of past believers about the eternal things of God; it equips us to live lives pleasing to God in this world. And yet, it is boring to read.

Few disciplines approach theology for combining significance with wooden prose; in part because of the weightiness of the theologian’s claims, he must take care to write precisely. Eternal souls, after all, hang in the balance when one discusses topics of ultimate significance. But what if theology could do everything it must do (strengthen the believer, intellectually support the faith,draw principles and doctrines from the text of Scripture, rearticulate the faith for the living generation) and not be dry as dust? If this goal could be met, two things would happen. First, more people would read theological texts. Secondly, more people would enjoy reading theological texts.

Writing well belongs properly to literature. What the 18th century called belles lettres, the craft of beautiful writing, takes timeless ideas (from whatever source the author chooses to draw them) and crafts them together into a narrative; some of the most persuasive theologians of the Christian tradition have combined the rigor of theology with literary skill to produce timeless classics which proclaim the glory of God’s salvation through the ages; because the writing is so well done, the spiritual message is conveyed from generation to generation.

Two examples will serve to illustrate this claim, one medieval and one modern. Thomas Aquinas was an earth shatteringly important theologian; his Summa Theologica serves to this day as the high mark of medieval theology. In Aquinas’ quest to marry Aristotelian philosophy with medieval Catholicism, he produced a system of thought which continues to inspire philosophical and theological work. Reading the Summa, however, is an easy way to combat insomnia. Aquinas combines the highest intellectual capacity with logical form, producing a significant yet unbearably dull piece of theological philosophy. The form of his writing reads like the notes from a debate judge:

“There are three objections to my point (lists them). Here is a quote. Here is my point. Here are my replies to the three objections. Next.”

Aquinas is rich, yet we would deceive ourselves if we thought the masses could read him and find spiritual benefit from him. G. K. Chesterton tells this story about a parishioner who tried to read Aquinas:

“A lady I know picked up a book of selections from St. Thomas with a commentary; and began hopefully to read a section with the innocent heading, “The Simplicity of God.” She then laid down the book with a sigh and said, “Well, if that’s His simplicity, I wonder what His complexity is like.”

Aquinas’ significance is difficult to overstate, but in terms of practical spiritual benefit for most people, Dante would provide more spiritual nourishment. Dante took Aquinas’ theology (a hierarchy of goods and sins, a system of punishment, a vision of divine love which moves the cosmos, and a synthesis of knowledge between the Greco-Roman world and the Christian) and turned it into the first Christian epic poem. As the reader travels with Dante and Virgil through the winding road to Dis and the Adversary frozen at the Inferno’s core, we accidentally learn an enormous amount of medieval theology. By studying the balance of sins and justice Dante used, we cannot help but begin to ask questions of practical application: if Francesca and Paolo spent eternity like that for their lust, is there any of the restless wandering of lust within me? Rather than beginning with the intellect, Dante seizes our hearts and imagination and fuses them together with his poetic vision; in so doing, he also instructs our minds. Pastorally, I would not give Aquinas to just any church member; Dante I would hand out freely. Because of his literary skill, Dante guides us into the deep waters of Thomistic theology and sustains us through it.

In the modern era, I know of no greater literary theologian than C.S. Lewis. A literature professor by inclination and training, Lewis combined all the craft of a medievalist with his deep, theological studies. Consider the theological principles Lewis brings up in The Chronicles of Narnia. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe addresses multiple understandings of substitutionary atonement (as Aslan sacrifices himself for Edmund); it illustrates the curse being undone (as Aslan breathes life into stone creatures); it shows the balance of justice and mercy necessary in the divine economy (in Aslan’s explanation of the Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time). Prince Caspian shows God concerned with joy and the flourishing of his creatures; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader contains a profound image of redemption (Eustace Scrubb’s change from dragon to human and his inability to change himself). The Horse and His Boy waxes missional, reminding us that God loves all men (even Calormen). The Silver Chair contains a version of the Anselm’s Ontological Argument, as well as showing the human predilection for ignoring God’s commands. The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle reinforce each other, framing the fictional world of Narnia as one of divine beginning and ending; both are riddled with the implications of creation and redemption, displaying the hope offered by Revelation; The Last Battle concludes with a vision of heaven where all that is good in creation is brought into Aslan’s Country and made perfect, dwelling with him forever. Children who read these books, whether they are consciously aware of it or not, are being instructed in essential theological categories preparing the ground for God’s work in the gospel.

Theology is a vital, ongoing need for the Christian church. Christians are served by men who study the deep things of God and maintain the tradition of theological engagement; theology as it currently exists, however, is oriented predominantly to the academy. As such, theology only reaches those who are intellectually inclined to it. God has not reserved theology only for the intellectually elite; when paired with the craft of literature, theology becomes both accessible and enjoyable. John Bunyan and John Milton both discovered this truth. As Puritans, both were deeply read theologically and intellectually inclined. Both used their giftings to serve the church at large. For Milton, this culminated in Paradise Lost, an epic poem through which the call of God’s grace resounds to this day. For Bunyan, his pastoral work caused him to formulate his theology in the form of allegory. Pilgrim’s Progress remains one of the hallmark pieces of Protestant theology; its accessibility makes it one of the beloved texts of Christians for the past four centuries.

Jesus turned to the disciples and said, “Pray to the Lord of the Harvest that He might send workers.” Perhaps we might paraphrase that prayer, and ask God to continue raising up literary theologians who use their giftings to “sing the song again in our time” in a beautiful, accessible way.

 

Josh Herring is a Humanities Instructor at Thales Academy, a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Hillsdale College, and a doctoral student in Faulkner University’s Great Books program. He has written for Moral Apologetics, The Imaginative Conservative, Think Christian, and The Federalist; he loves studying the intersection of history, literature, theology, and ideas expressed in the complexities of human life.