Friday, July 31, 2015

Caught off guard

We begin to notice, besides our particular sinful acts, our sinfulness; begin to be alarmed not only about what we do, but about what we are. This may sound rather difficult, so I will try to make it clear from my own case. When I come to my evening prayers and try to reckon up the sins of the day, nine times out of ten the most obvious one is some sin against charity; I have sulked or snapped or sneered or snubbed or stormed. And the excuse that immediately springs to my mind is that the provocation was so sudden and unexpected; I was caught off my guard, I had not time to collect myself.

Now that may be an extenuating circumstance as regards those particular acts: they would obviously be worse if they had been deliberate and premeditated. On the other hand, surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of a man he is? Surely what pops out before the man has time to put on a disguise is the truth? If there are rats in a cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. But the suddenness does not create the rats: it only prevents them from hiding.

In the same way the suddenness of the provocation does not make me an ill-tempered man; it only shows me what an ill-tempered man I am. The rats are always there in the cellar, but if you go in shouting and noisily they will have taken cover before you switch on the light.

From Mere Christianity by C S Lewis

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Overcoming violence

We have to acknowledge that the help that comes after the violence has been done, though it undeniably helps, is not a solution to violence. The solution, many times more complex and difficult, would be to go beyond our ideas, obviously insane, of war as the way to peace and of permanent damage to the ecosphere as the way to wealth. Actually to help our suffering of one man-made horror after another, we would have to revise radically our understanding of economic life, of community life, of work, and of pleasure. We employ thousands of scientists and spend billions of dollars to reduce matter to its smallest particles and to search for farther stars. How many scientists and how many dollars are devoted to harmony between economy and ecology, or to amity and lenity in the face of hatred and killing? To learn to meet our needs without continuous violence against one another and our only world would require an immense intellectual and practical effort, requiring the help of every human being perhaps to the end of human time. This would be work worthy of the name "human." It would be fascinating and lovely.

Wendell Berry
"The Commerce of Violence" in Our Only World

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Belief in Hell

Does Anyone Really Believe in Traditional Hell? 

Again, there comes this very serious obstacle to accepting the popular creed. I shall state it thus, either this creed is true or false If false—the question is ended. If true, can this strange fact be explained—that nobody acts as if he believed it? I say this, for any man who so believed, and who possessed but a spark of common humanity—to say nothing of charity—could not rest, day or night, so long as one sinner remained who might be saved. To this all would give place—pleasure, learning, business, art, literature; nay, life itself would be too short for the terrible warnings, the burning entreaties, the earnest pleadings, that would be needed to rouse sinners from their apathy, and to pluck them from endless tortures. 
Ask me what you will, but do not ask me to believe that any human being, who is convinced that perhaps his own child, his wife, his friend, his neighbor, even his enemy, is in danger of endless torment, could, if really persuaded of this, live as men now live, even the best men: who can avoid the inevitable conclusion that its warmest adherents really, though unconsciously, find their dogmas absolutely incredible? In fact these men (and it is the best thing to be said for them) teach their creed without real conviction. Their best eulogy is that they are self-deceivers. 
These remarks also explain an obvious difficulty, viz., it has been shown how the popular creed cuts at the root of all religion, poisoning the very fountains whence we draw our conceptions of love, of righteousness, of truth. But if so, it may be fairly asked, how is it that society subsists, that morality is not extinct? Because, I reply unhesitatingly, because no society, no individual, can possibly act, or has in fact acted, on such a creed, in the real business of life. It is simply impossible: who would dare so much as to smile, if he really believed endless torments were certain to be the portion of some member of his household—it may be of himself? Marriage would be a crime; each birth the occasion of an awful dread. The shadow of a possible hell would darken every home, sadden every family hearth. 
All this becomes evident when we reflect that to perpetuate the race would be to help on the perpetuation of moral evil. For if this creed be true, out of all the yearly births a steady current is flowing on to help to fill the abyss of hell, to make larger and vaster the total of moral evil which is to endure for ever. “The world would be one vast madhouse,” says the American scholar Hallsted, “if a realizing and continued pressure of such a doctrine was present.” 
Remark again how this doctrine breaks down the moment it is really put to the test. Take a common case: a man dies—active, benevolent, useful in life, but not a religious man, not devout. By the popular creed, such a man has gone to hell for ever. But who really believes that? nay, instinctively our words grow softer when we speak of the dead in all cases. Do even the clergy really believe what they profess? I cannot refrain from most serious doubt on this point. If they believe, why are they so often silent? Habitual silence would be impossible to any one believing the traditional creed in earnest. The awful future would dwarf all other topics, would compel incessant appeals. But what do we find? Everything, I reply, that marks a declining faith in endless evil—silence; excuses; modifications; evasions of the true issue.

Thomas Allin: Christ Triumphant: Universalism Asserted as the Hope of the Gospel on the Authority of Reason, the Fathers, and Holy Scripture. Annotated Edition, 2015

Tuesday, July 21, 2015


In normal life we hardly realize how much more we receive than we give, and life cannot be rich without such gratitude. It is so easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements compared with what we owe to the help of others.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Moment by moment

Never, in peace or war, commit your virtue or your happiness to the future. Happy work is best done by the man who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment “as to the Lord.” It is only our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for. The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received.

C S Lewis, in The Weight of Glory

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Nature and grace

In short, grace cannot answer to natural need as naturally known; for if it did it would not be grace.

Nor will it do to say that while grace does not answer to natural need, it does answer to the needs of a fallen human nature, as if it were that because of sin, and because we are creatures fallen, grace is demanded because our natures demand to be restored to their innocent condition. At any rate, Thomas does not believe this: in fact, the objection is obvious, grace being, in name and nature, “gratuitous,” it cannot be demanded by anything, except in a purely hypothetical sense: if we are to be saved then only grace can save us...for Thomas the fall is a human predicament which imposes absolutely no obligation on God to do anything about. Fallen as we are, without grace we have no right to anything but to stew in our own juice— in fact, fallen as we are, we hardly even know how far we are fallen; at best we can know that ours is a predicament, our ignorance of its nature being itself an aspect of that self-same fallen condition. For ours is like the condition of the person who is self-deceived : not only is he self-ignorant, he has somehow managed to hide from himself how it is that he is himself the cause of that ignorance and that he has a reason for remaining in it undisturbed. Therefore, for Thomas it takes grace to know that we are in need of grace; and it takes grace for us to know that there is a possible condition to which nature is restored, a condition far beyond the powers of nature even as they were before the Fall. It is in that sense that, for Thomas, nature is “perfected” by grace— not as if, knowing what we want, human beings are by grace given the gift of it, but rather, not knowing what we want, the gift of grace reveals to us the depth and nature of our need, a need that, as heretofore we were, was unknown to us.

Grace, therefore, does not exactly answer to our desire, as if we knew what our desire is. Grace answers to desires that only it can arouse in us, showing us what it is that we really want: grace is pure gift, the gift we could not have known that we wanted until we were given it. For grace does not merely solve the problem of the gap opened up by the Fall, restoring us to where we were before Adam's sin. It goes far beyond and above that, calling us into a friendship which is surplus by an infinite degree to the solution required. We need to come to know this, and to live by the knowledge that everything transacted between ourselves and God— that is, everything to do with the friendship that Jesus offered his followers— is the work of grace, a work that is of its nature supererogatory, being a solution that far exceeds what is needed by the problem it solves.

Thomas Aquinas by Denys Turner

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Taking part

Scripture - the Old and New Testaments - is the story of creation and new creation. Within that, it is the story of covenant and new covenant. When we read scripture as Christians, we read it precisely as people of the new covenant and of the new creation. We do not read it, in other words, as a flat, uniform list of regulations or doctrines. We read it as the narrative in which we ourselves are now called to take part. We read it to discover "the story so far" and also "how it's supposed to end." To put it another way, we live somewhere between the end of Acts and closing scene of Revelation. If we want to understand scripture and to find it doing its proper work in and through us, we must learn to read and understand it in the light of that overall story.

N.T. Wright

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Things forbidden, things permitted

The truth is, of course, that the curtness of the Commandments is an evidence…of its liberality and humanity. It is shorter to state the things forbidden than the things permitted, precisely because most things are permitted and only a few things are forbidden.

An optimist who insisted on a purely positive morality would have to begin (supposing he knew where to begin) by telling a man that he might pick dandelions on a common, and go on for months before he came to the fact that he might throw pebbles into the sea; and then resume his untiring efforts by issuing a general permission to sneeze, to make snowballs, to blow bubbles, to play marbles, to make toy aeroplanes … and everything else he could think of, without ever coming to an end. 

In comparison with this positive morality, the Ten Commandments rather shine in that brevity which is the soul of wit. It is better to tell a man not to steal than to try to tell him the thousand things that he can enjoy without stealing; especially as he can generally be pretty well trusted to enjoy them. 

(The Complete Works of G K Chesterton [Ignatius Press, 1989], 32:18)

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Dealing with sadness

Given the prevailing caricature of the man whose physiognomy consisted of nothing but an oversize cerebellum, the chances are exceedingly low of anyone guessing Thomas to have been the author of the following sensitively practical reflections on how to cope with sadness. 
First, he says, you should cry, both tears and groans, though you might also try talk therapy. Above all, no stiff upper lip: First of all, because anything that is causing you inner hurt afflicts you all the more for being contained, as the mind becomes fixated upon it. But when it is let out it is in a certain degree dissipated and the inner sadness to that extent diminished. For this reason when people are afflicted by sadness and vent it with tears and groans, or even tell of it in words, the sadness decreases. 
A second reason is that human beings always get some pleasure out of acting appropriately, and weeping and groaning is just what the person who is sad and doleful should be doing. Being in this sort of way appropriate behavior it gives a certain kind of mitigating pleasure that reduces the sadness. 
Next, if sad, count on your friends. That is the natural thing to do. One reason, the weaker of two, he says, is that if a friend shares your sadness it will seem as if the burden of it is lightened by virtue of her carrying part of it for you. But the better reason is that being prepared to share a friend's sadness and console him is a way of showing love for him, and the perception of the love thus shown to him by a friend gives the sort of pleasure that alleviates the sadness. 
You could also, of course, try contemplative prayer, if, like Thomas, you find contemplation to be the most intense of all pleasures, the point being that it is always some kind of pleasure that drives sadness away. If, however, weeping, groaning, therapeutic talk, prayer, and friends all fail to cheer you up, take a hot bath and get a good night's sleep. Thus all-brain Thomas.

From Thomas Aquinas: a portrait, by Denys Turner