Archives For First Things

Puppies in Heaven

January 1, 2016 — 13 Comments

pupWill dogs and other fauna have a place in the new creation? It’s an interesting—and controversial—subject.

I just reread a delightful essay in which the author, an Orthodox theologian, describes a debate he had with a Roman Catholic scholastic on the subject.* I enjoyed the following description of the discussion so much that I had to share it.

I was once told by a young, ardently earnest Thomist . . . you know, one of those manualist neo-paleo-neo-Thomists of the baroque persuasion you run across ever more frequently these days, gathered in the murkier corners of coffee bars around candles in wine bottles, clad in black turtlenecks and berets, sipping espresso . . . this young Thomist told me that not only could my dog not love me (since he lacks a rational nature), but I could not love my dog (something about there needing to be some rational equality between lover and beloved).

Now, while I admitted that I could only presume the former claim to be incorrect . . . I was adamant that I could be absolutely certain of the falsity of the latter. But my friend was not deterred: “Oh, no,” he insisted, “you don’t really love him; you just think you do because of your deep emotional attachment to him.”

Of course. Foolish of me. Leave it to a two-tier Thomist to devise a definition of love that does not actually involve love. If you can believe in pure nature, I suppose you can believe anything.

{More on the question of animals in paradise below . . .}

Debates (civilized variants of arguments) can be fascinating when they are dissected and examined. Theological debates are particularly enthralling.

C.S. Lewis appreciated the value of debate in sharpening one’s position. This approach to learning can be traced back to the Socratic Method, which is based upon asking and answering questions.

In 1941, the Oxford Socratic Club was formed to “follow the argument wherever it led them.” C.S. Lewis was its first president (faculty sponsor), serving until 1955 when he moved to Cambridge University. In the first issue of the Socratic Digest, Lewis wrote:

In any fairly large and talkative community such as a university, there is always the danger that those who think alike should gravitate together into coteries where they will henceforth encounter opposition only in the emasculated form of rumour that the outsiders say thus and thus.

The absent are easily refuted, complacent dogmatism thrives, and differences of opinion are embittered by group hostility. Each group hears not the best, but the worst, that the other groups can say.

Some of the debates conducted by the club were legendary. You can read a fine article about these “University Battles” here.

Returning to the Question of Animals in Heaven

I wrote on this subject several years ago. That post is worth checking out if only for the amazing graphic that graces it.

You can read my own perspective on the question there, if you are interested.

Today I wish to end, instead, with the summary of my kindred spirit, who debated the philosopher.

The final sentence in this next section is priceless.

The occasion of the exchange, incidentally, was a long and rather tediously circular conversation concerning Christian eschatology. My interlocutor was an adherent to a particularly colorless construal of the beatific vision, one that allows for no real participation of animal creation (except eminently, through us) in the final blessedness of the Kingdom; I, by contrast, hope to see puppies in paradise, and persevere in faith principally for that reason.

His sentiment reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ thoughts in Mere Christianity.

I sometimes like to imagine that I can just see how it might apply to other things. I think I can see how the higher animals are in a sense drawn into Man when he loves them and makes them (as he does) much more nearly human than they would otherwise be.

Hart offers another delightfully sarcastic comment about the weight of different authorities the two debaters were citing. And with that observation, we shall end.

On his side, all the arguments were drawn from Thomas and his expositors; on mine, they were drawn from Scripture; naturally, limited to the lesser source of authority, I was at a disadvantage. . . . [arguing] that the biblical imagery of the redeemed state is cosmic in scope and positively teeming with fauna (lions lying down with lambs and such)—that Paul’s vision of salvation in Romans 8 is of the entirety of creation restored and glorified—things of that sort. All in vain, though; nothing I said could rival the dialectical force of his ringing sic Thomas dixit [so Thomas said].

_____

* The author, David Bentley Hart, is not anti-Catholic. In fact, he has taught at several Roman Catholic universities. The article quoted appears here.

 

Unintentional Acrostics

March 10, 2014 — 14 Comments

letterSome writers sweat to find precisely the right word, the one that expresses the unique meaning and tone we seek to convey. We often fail, as the reference to perspiration in my first sentence readily reveals. A recent observation from the executive editor of First Things  provides me with another crippling concern.

“This for those interested in how magazines work. My son Christopher pointed out that the initial capital letters on a two-page spread . . . spelled “a wit.” Which was kind of nice. Accidental, but nice. And then I thought: Suppose some day we accidentally spelled out a rude four-letter word? Now, after the magazine is laid out, one of the junior fellows reads through the magazine to make sure we haven’t accidentally made a word that will embarrass us. It’s a small thing, and probably paranoid, but here paranoia equals prudence.”

Unless each writer maintains constant vigilance, since most of us don’t have “junior fellows” to assign the duty, it’s quite possible for unintentional acrostics to slip into our work. Like the seamen in the crow’s nest of the Titanic—I just watched a new documentary on the subject last night—we can easily miss the veiled iceberg which threatens to sink our best effort.

Prone as we are to playing with the depths of individual words, we are normally sensitive to the fact more than 90% of a word’s value in a particular context may lie beneath the surface. That does not mean, however, that we always see the larger picture.

It is not uncommon for a writer to become almost paralyzed while composing something, when the ideal word continues to elude us. It is almost “literally” painful to have to settle for a substitute, when we suspect the perfect word is floating somewhere just beyond our reach.

Dodging mundane words is not easy. They are common, in part at least, because they are so simple and easy to plug into sentences. And so, we “go” to the store, when we might just as easily “drive,” “walk,” “ride,” or even “hitchhike.” A movie is described as “good,” when readers would value a vivid word, such as, “suspenseful,” “hilarious,” “complex,” “moving,” or even “groundbreaking.”

Reflections on the Psalms, one of C.S. Lewis’ gems, explores the beauty of the Bible’s hymnal. “The Psalms,” he notes, “are poems, and poems intended to be sung: not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons.” Because of this, they have nourished the worship lives of Jew and Christian alike, for thousands of years.

Even without a theological education, Lewis offers great insight into the Psalms. “I am no Hebraist, no higher critic, no ancient historian, no archaeologist.” He candidly discusses passages he initially found difficult to embrace, as well as those which soar to spiritual and poetic heights. The following comes from his discussion of Psalm 119, which is skillfully composed around an alphabetic acrostic.

“As everyone knows, the Psalm specially devoted to the Law is 119, the longest in the whole collection. And everyone has probably noticed that from the literary or technical point of view, it is the most formal and elaborate of them all. The technique consists in taking a series of words which are all, for purposes of this poem, more or less synonyms (word, statutes, commandments, testimonies, etc.), and ringing the changes on them through each of its eight-verse sections—which themselves correspond to the letters of the alphabet. . . . this poem is not, and does not pretend to be, a sudden outpouring of the heart like, say, Psalm 18. It is a pattern, a thing done like embroidery, stitch by stitch, through long, quiet hours, for love of the subject and for the delight in leisurely, disciplined craftsmanship.”

Done like embroidery, stitch by stitch.” Many writers, I suspect, will appreciate that description. While we are sometimes forced to throw something together in a rush, the patchwork results offend our sensitivities.

Even when writing rather pedestrian things like much of our email correspondence, most writers seek to employ lively verbiage. It’s a valuable exercise, after all, to consider the pace of all of our work, and not simply those words we hope to see “published.” And, having written something worth reading, there is one more consideration.

Reviewing what we have written is well worth the time required. And, as Editor David Mills suggested in First Things, our examination should include any unintentional acrostics we may have created. After all, no respectable writer would ever wish to, even accidentally, offend their readers.

Beware of Zoolatry

January 8, 2013 — 17 Comments

royal catWhen my wife and I dated, I praised her beautiful cat when I visited her home. The cat maintained that imperial posture and attitude that is common in virtually all felines. And that came as no surprise, since she was an Egyptian Mau, one of the most ancient of breeds. She passed on long decades ago, but her haughty, regal bearing is etched in my memory.

I thought of her today when I read the following in the December issue of First Things, in the executive editor’s column.

Wandering around the American Kennel Club’s big “Meet the Breeds” event with my two youngest children recently, I saw a big banner in the cat section proclaiming that a particular breed had been considered a god by an ancient civilization. Of course, our understanding of the genuine religious impulses of ancient religions has increased, but still, one of the gifts the Jewish people have brought the world is that no one who knows about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the least bit tempted to worship cats.

I mean, would you want to worship a murderous narcissistic psychopath? This is not an image of God to make anyone happy. If you’re going to worship an animal, why not the Border Collie, frantically eager to please, or the loving, soulful-eyed Lab? Or the alert and protective German Shepherd? Or the indomitable Saint Bernard? Or the classic loyal and even-tempered mutt?

I don’t intend to offend any cat lovers by repeating this observation—my son has an affectionate tabby he rescued as a kitten while a senior in high school, that’s welcome in our home anytime. Still, as an unrepentant dog person, and “papa” to a rescued border collie, the words above brought a smile to me.

C.S. Lewis painted a graphic image of one animal-headed deity. It was Tash, the god of the Calormenes. In The Last Battle, we see that in Narnia, the reality behind the lifeless image can be most terribly revealed.

In the shadow of the trees on the far side of the clearing something was moving. It was gliding very slowly Northward. At a first glance you might have mistaken it for smoke, for it was grey and you could see things through it. But the deathly smell was not the smell of smoke. Also, this thing kept its shape instead of billowing and curling as smoke would have done. It was roughly the shape of a man but it had the head of a bird; some bird of prey with a cruel, curved beak. It had four arms which it held high above its head, stretching them out Northward as if it wanted to snatch all Narnia in its grip; and its fingers—all twenty of them—were curved like its beak and had long, pointed, bird-like claws instead of nails. It floated on the grass instead of walking, and the grass seemed to wither beneath it. . . .

The others watched it for perhaps a minute, until it streamed away into the thicker trees on their right and disappeared. Then the sun came out again, and the birds once more began to sing. Everyone started breathing properly again and moved. They had all been still as statues while it was in sight. “What was it?” said Eustace in a whisper. “I have seen it once before,” said Tirian. “But that time it was carved in stone and overlaid with gold and had solid diamonds for eyes. It was when I was no older than thou, and had gone as a guest to The Tisroc’s court in Tashbaan. He took me into the great temple of Tash. There I saw it, carved above the altar.”

“Then that—that thing—was Tash?” said Eustace.

In our world, idolatry has certainly evolved since it’s pantheistic and zoolatrous beginnings. Today we are tempted by material indulgences and corruptions aplenty. While few of us impute divinity to animals or objects of stone or wood, we don’t have to look far to find something we deem worthy of adoration.

Our favorite idol is neither beast nor mammon. It is ourselves. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain:

This act of self-will on the part of the creature, which constitutes an utter falseness to its true creaturely position, is the only sin that can be conceived as the Fall. For the difficulty about the first sin is that it must be very heinous, or its consequences would not be so terrible, and yet it must be something which a being free from the temptations of fallen man could conceivably have committed. The turning from God to self fulfils both conditions. It is a sin possible even to Paradisal man, because the mere existence of a self—the mere fact that we call it “me”—includes, from the first, the danger of self-idolatry. Since I am I, I must make an act of self-surrender, however small or however easy, in living to God rather than to myself. This is, if you like, the “weak spot” in the very nature of creation, the risk which God apparently thinks worth taking.

Now, this is a sin to which I frequently find myself succumbing. I far too often think first about my own desires and appetites . . . only later (if ever) becoming concerned with the needs of my neighbor.

No, it’s neither cat nor dog that needs to be evicted from the throne in my soul reserved for my Creator—it’s me.