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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Conversion Story of an Atheist

Speaking of atheists in the previous post brought to mind the conversion story of science fiction author John C. Wright that I read in Jennifer's blog (also an ex-atheist).

So here it is.

All religions are the same--not!

GK Chesterton on religions:

There is a phrase of facile liberality uttered again and again at ethical societies and parliaments of religion: “the religions of the earth differ in rites and forms, but they are the same in what they teach.” It is false; it is the opposite of the fact. The religions of the earth do not greatly differ in rites and forms; they do greatly differ in what they teach. It is as if a man were to say, “Do not be misled by the fact that the Church Times and the Freethinker look utterly different, that one is painted on vellum and the other carved on marble, that one is triangular and the other hectagonal; read them and you will see that they say the same thing.” The truth is, of course, that they are alike in everything except in the fact that they don’t say the same thing. An atheist stockbroker in Surbiton looks exactly like a Swedenborgian stockbroker in Wimbledon. You may walk round and round them and subject them to the most personal and offensive study without seeing anything Swedenborgian in the hat or anything particularly godless in the umbrella. It is exactly in their souls that they are divided. So the truth is that the difficulty of all the creeds of the earth is not as alleged in this cheap maxim: that they agree in meaning, but differ in machinery. It is exactly the opposite. They agree in machinery; almost every great religion on earth works with the same external methods, with priests, scriptures, altars, sworn brotherhoods, special feasts. They agree in the mode of teaching; what they differ about is the thing to be taught. Pagan optimists and Eastern pessimists would both have temples, just as Liberals and Tories would both have newspapers. Creeds that exist to destroy each other both have scriptures, just as armies that exist to destroy each other both have guns.

via First Things, found here

The Dynamics of Belief and Unbelief

I read a book by CS Lewis, "Till We Have Faces" that is a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche as an exploration of the dynamics of faith. Every type of believer and non-believer is presented in this story.

I'm not good at reviewing so I'll just present a few excerpts here.

It is basically about an ugly princess (Orual) who is devastated when her beautiful step-sister (Psyche) is sacrificed to the shadowgod (aka Cupid) in order to bring an end to the plague. Orual grieves for her step-sister because she loved her very much, but her grief turns to anger when she finds out that Psyche didn't die. Psyche is living in the wilderness with her new husband that she cannot see (because he visits at night) and claims to live in a castle. Orual sees no evidence that the story is true, and Psyche's bliss enrages her more. So she blackmails Psyche to take a peak at Cupid and thus sends her into exile.

This is Orual's defense, which is the anguished cry of the atheist:
Now, you who read, judge between the gods and me. They gave me nothing in the world to love but Psyche and then took her from me. But that was not enough. They then brought me to her at such a place and time that it hung on my word whether she should continue in bliss or be cast out into misery. They would not tell me whether she was the bride of a god, or mad, or a brute's or villain's spoil. They would give me no clear sign, though I begged for it. I had to guess. And because I guessed wrong they punished me--what's worse, punished me through her. And even that was not enough; they have now sent out a lying story in which I was given no riddle to guess, but knew and saw that she was the god's bride, and of my own will I destroyed her, and that for jealousy...

I say the gods deal very unrightly with us. For they will neither (which would be best of all) go away and leave us to live our own short days to ourselves, nor will they show themselves openly and tell us what they would have us do. For that too would be endurable. But to hint and hover, to draw near us in dreams and oracles, or in a waking vision that vanishes as soon as seen, to be dead silent when we question them and then glide back and whisper (words we cannot understand) in our ears when we most wish to be free of them, and to show to one what they hide from another; what is all this but cat-and-mouse play, blindman's buff, and mere jugglery? Why must holy places be dark places?

I say, therefore, that there is no creature (toad, scorpion, or serpent) so noxious to man as the gods. Let them answer my charge if they can. It may well be that, instead of answering, they'll strike me mad or leprous or turn me into beast, bird, or tree. But will not all the world then know (and the gods will know it knows) that this is because they have no answer?


Later ugly Orual has a horrifying thought:
A terrible sheer thought, huge as a cliff, towered up before me, infinitely likely to be true. No man will love you, though you gave your life for him, unless you have a pretty face. So (might it not be?), the gods will not love you (however you try to pleasure them, and whatever you suffer) unless you have that beauty of soul. In either race, for the love of men or the love of a god, the winners and losers are marked out from birth. We bring our ugliness, in both kinds, with us into the world, with it our destiny. How bitter this was, every ill-favoured woman will know. We have all had our dream of some other land, some other world, some other way of giving the prizes which would bring us in as the conquerors; leave the smooth, rounded limbs, and the little pink and white faces, and the hair like burnished gold, far behind; their day ended, and ours come. But how if it's not so at all? how if we were made to be dregs and refuse everwhere and everyway?

What does Orual learn? Read the book and find out.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Cinderella and Our Works

Christians believe that salvation is through faith and not through "works", but faith without works is dead. Jesus had much to say about faith that does not bear fruit. So I was thinking over my own "works" and realized with a shudder the following:

Another name for Satan is the Accuser, and another name for the Holy Spirit is the Advocate, sort of like a courtroom scene where Satan is the prosecutor and the Holy Spirit the defense lawyer.

There is a scene in Disney's classic, Cinderella, where Cinderella's little mice friends sew her a dress for the ball using bits and pieces saved from here and there. When the evil step-sisters see her dress, they gleefully tear off the beads and ribbons that originally belonged to them, leaving her in tatters.

This is where my shudder comes in. I was thinking of my "works" as that dress that the mice made. In comes Satan and he recognizes what's his, all the little impurities in my motives, since I never did anything good with 100% pure unselfish motives. After he's done taking out whatever is his, I'm left in tatters.

But wait, the fairy godmother can make me a new dress, lovelier than before and beyond the reach of Satan. The godmother is Jesus, of course, acting through the Holy Spirit.

Reading the Psalms in the Light of Christ

One of the last things that Jesus did after His Resurrection and before His Ascension into Heaven was to open His disciples' minds to Scripture. Now they were able to see how Jesus is hidden in the Scriptures, meaning the Old Testament. The great secret of the Old Testament is that it has Jesus's footprints all over it, and this is an additional meaning that Christians perceive in the Old Testament that is not evident to Jews.

I found the following in the comments section of Mere Comments, written by Wonders for Oyarsa and reproduced below.

Let's take Psalm 1, and I'll show you what I think it means to read it "in the light of Christ."

Psalm 1
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.

Original Reading

Now, the plain original meaning of this psalm is rather obvious. A righteous man is one who chooses to spend his time away from bad men - wicked men, sinners, and scoffers. Instead of desiring their company and approval, he delights in contemplating the Torah of God - which includes the story of God's creation and redemption as well as God's outline of how his people are to live.
Holding fast to the Torah keeps this man firmly planted in God, and makes him successful in all that he does. This is in contrast to wicked men, who come to ruin. God "knows" the way of the righteous - in that deep Biblical sense of the word - walking in this way unites the righteous man to God in a way not wholly unlike Adam "knowing" his wife Eve. As they walk apart from God, the wicked simply wither away.

This is how an Old Testament (and presumably a modern) Jew would read this psalm. And this should be the first sense in which we read it as well. However, I believe that we Christians should go beyond just this reading, and read it in the light of Christ.

Reading in the Light of Christ

So, we should immediately think of the Son of Man who did not walk in the counsel of the wicked. He did nothing of his own accord, but only from the word he heard from the Father. Day and night, he was immersed in prayer, listening to his Father's will. In all that he did, he prospered. All things were put under his feet - all his enemies were conquered - including that last enemy, Death itself. Yet we must keep in mind that this victory was done, paradoxically, through his apparent defeat on the tree of the cross. His body seemed to be destroyed, but did not see corruption or decay. He did not wither. And those powers that saw fit to put him to death were indeed destroyed (both the Priestly establishment and the Roman imperial powers), withering away, while his name is exalted over all other names.

The Lord knows the way of Christ - to know him is eternal life itself. To see him is to see the Father. Those who place their believing allegiance in him are united to him in love - love which is born of God and knows God. Whoever rejects the Son will not see life - for he cuts himself off from the knowledge of God. Such branches wither, and are fit only to be thrown into the fire.

The Relationship Between the Two

I don't think, after looking at Christ, we should ever look at anything the same again - even the Old Testament scriptures. We should obviously not be blinded to the Old Testament as it was read by the original authors, but we should see far more.

So, for instance, we would no longer be content to bask in the glory of how much a man visibly prospers by his adherence to the Torah of God, without speaking of Christ. For Christ redefines the very notion of Torah - being himself the Word and Law of God in person. Christ redefines the very nature of prosperity - it is not to be found in self-aggrandizement but in self-sacrificial service. To prosper means to share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so somehow to attain the resurrection of the dead.

We also cannot look down our noses at those formerly deemed as "wicked", "sinners", and "scoffers" - for the Lord of Life has invited those formerly cut off from the knowledge of God to his table. To exalt in one's own adherence to Torah, against these outsiders is to play the part of the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son. Do not call common what God has made clean.
So who are the wicked that wither away? Those who persist in rejecting the gospel, of course, but ultimately, if this be read in the light of Christ, we should see that corruption and decay and death itself ironically now corrodes, decays, and dies. This is done by means of the cross of the aforementioned blessed man.

So it is the same God who inspired those original psalms who also sent us his son. But that does not mean we are to read these in the same way, from where we stand. When that which is perfect has come, that interpretation that was in part must go away. When you've beheld the glory of the Only Begotten Son, you should never look at the Law and the Prophets the same again - or rather, when you look upon them, they only continue to point you back again towards what they were ultimately meant to reveal all along.


To show you that this is how the Church interprets Scripture, I give you another example, a small commentary on Psalm 1 by a respected Bible scholar and Orthodox, Father Patrick Henry Reardon, (go here and scroll down to Monday, August 28). It's so short I've reproduced it here below:

Psalms 1 & 2: The first two psalms in the Psalter describe the same "Man," who is the perfect Man, Christ our Lord.

In Psalm 1 Christ is presented as the Man who fears the Lord and walks in His ways, and He is contrasted with the wicked, who are the enemies of God. In Psalm 2 He is described as the King, against whom the enemies of God make war.

Both of these psalms speak, not only of Christ, but also of Christ's enemies. The enemies of Christ are seldom absent from the Book of Psalms, because this is a prayer book for warriors. No one else need try to pray them.

These first two psalms are likewise the key to the understanding of the whole Psalter, because they identify the "Man" whose presence dominates each of the psalms. This is why the Book of Psalms is the Old Testament work most cited and quoted in the New Testament. This is also why the Book of Psalms has been, from the beginning, the major prayer book of the Christian Church, which is the company of Christian warriors.

To pray the psalms outside of this Christological center is to render one's prayer less than Christian. (cf. Patrick Henry Reardon, Christ in the Psalms, Conciliar Press 2000 -- www.conciliarpress.com)

Saturday, August 18, 2007

GK Chesterton Essay: Why I Believe in Christianity

I just came across a collection of GK Chesterton essays via Dawn Eden upon which I shall be gorging.

Here is his essay, found here.

Why I Believe in Christianity

By G.K. Chesterton

Reprinted in The Religious Doubts of Democracy (1904)

And "The Blatchford Controversies" (in The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, Vol. 1)

I mean no disrespect to Mr. Blatchford in saying that our difficulty very largely lies in the fact that he, like masses of clever people nowadays, does not understand what theology is. To make mistakes in a science is one thing, to mistake its nature another. And as I read "God and My Neighbour", the conviction gradually dawns on me that he thinks theology is the study of whether a lot of tales about God told in the Bible are historically demonstrable. This is as if he were trying to prove to a man that Socialism was sound Political Economy, and began to realise half-way through that the man thought that Political Economy meant the study of whether politicians were economical.

It is very hard to explain briefly the nature of a whole living study; it would be just as hard to explain politics or ethics. For the more a thing is huge and obvious and stares one in the face, the harder it is to define. Anybody can define conchology. Nobody can define morals.

Nevertheless it falls to us to make some attempt to explain this religious philosophy which was, and will be again, the study of the highest intellects and the foundation of the strongest nations, but which our little civilisation has for a while forgotten, just as it has forgotten how to dance and how to dress itself decently. I will try and - explain why I think a religious philosophy necessary and why I think Christianity the best religious philosophy. But before I do so I want you to bear in mind two historical facts. I do not ask you to draw my deduction from them or any deduction from them. I ask you to remember them as mere facts throughout the discussion.

1. Christianity arose and spread in a very cultured and very cynical world -in a very modern world. Lucretius was as much a materialist as Haeckel, and a much more persuasive writer. The Roman world had read "God and My Neighbour", and in a weary sort of way thought it quite true. It is worth noting that religions almost always do arise out of these sceptical civilisations. A recent book on the PreMohammedan literature of Arabia describes a life entirely polished and luxurious. It was so with Buddha, born in the purple of an ancient civilisation. It was so with Puritanism in England and the Catholic Revival in France and Italy, both of which were born out of the rationalism of the Renaissance. It is so to-day; it is always so. Go to the two most modern and free-thinking centres, Paris and America, and you will find them full of devils and angels, of old mysteries and new prophets. Rationalism is fighting for its life against the young and vigorous superstitions.

2. Christianity, which is a very mystical religion, has nevertheless been the religion of the most practical section of mankind. It has far more paradoxes than the Eastern philosophies, but it also builds far better roads.

The Moslem has a pure and logical conception of God, the one Monistic Allah. But he remains a barbarian in Europe, and the grass will not grow where he sets his foot. The Christian has a Triune God, "a tangled trinity," which seems a mere capricious contradiction in terms. But in action he bestrides the earth, and even the cleverest
Eastern can only fight him by imitating him first. The East has logic and lives on rice. Christendom has mysteries-and motor cars. Never mind, as I say, about the inference, let us register the fact.

Now with these two things in mind let me try and explain what Christian theology is.

Complete Agnosticism is the obvious attitude for man. We are all Agnostics until we discover that Agnosticism will not work. Then we adopt some philosophy, Mr. Blatchford's or mine or some others, for of course Mr. Blatchford is no more an Agnostic than I am. The Agnostic would say that he did not know whether man was responsible for his sins. Mr. Blatchford says that he knows that man is not.

Here we have the seed of the whole huge tree of dogma. Why does Mr. Blatchford go beyond Agnosticism and assert that there is certainly no free will? Because he cannot run his scheme of morals without asserting that there is no free will. He wishes no man to be blamed for sin. Therefore he has to make his disciples quite certain that God did not make them free and therefore blamable. No wild Christian doubt must flit through the mind of the Determinist. No demon must whisper to him in some hour of anger that perhaps the company promoter was responsible for swindling him into the workhouse. No sudden scepticism must suggest to him that perhaps the schoolmaster was blamable for flogging a little boy to death. The Determinist faith must be held firmly, or else certainly the weakness of human nature will lead men to be angered when they are slandered and kick back when they are kicked. In short, free will seems at first sight to belong to the Unknowable. Yet Mr. Blatchford cannot preach what seems to him common charity without asserting one dogma about it. And I cannot preach what seems to me common honesty without asserting another.

Here is the failure of Agnosticism. That our every-day view of the things we do (in the common sense) know, actually depends upon our view of the things we do not (in the common sense) know. It is all very well to tell a man, as the Agnostics do, to "cultivate his garden." But suppose a man ignores everything outside his garden, and among them ignores the sun and the rain?

This is the real fact. You cannot live without dogmas about these things. You cannot act for twenty-four hours without deciding either to hold people responsible or not to hold them responsible. Theology is a product far more practical than chemistry.

Some Determinists fancy that Christianity invented a dogma like free will for fun --a mere contradiction. This is absurd. You have the contradiction whatever you are. Determinists tell me, with a degree of truth, that Determinism makes no difference to daily life. That means -- that although the Determinist knows men have no free will, yet he goes on treating them as if they had.

The difference then is very simple. The Christian puts the contradiction into his philosophy. The Determinist puts it into his daily habits. The Christian states as an avowed mystery what the Determinist calls nonsense. The Determinist has the same nonsense for breakfast, dinner, tea, and supper every day of his life.

The Christian, I repeat, puts the mystery into his philosophy. That mystery by its darkness enlightens all things. Once grant him that, and life is life, and bread is
bread, and cheese is cheese: he can laugh and fight. The Determinist makes the matter of the will logical and lucid: and in the light of that lucidity all things are darkened, words have no meaning, actions no aim. He has made his philosophy a syllogism and himself a gibbering lunatic.

It is not a question between mysticism and rationality. It is a question between mysticism and madness. For mysticism, and mysticism alone, has kept men sane from the beginning of the world. All the straight roads of logic lead to some Bedlam, to Anarchism or to passive obedience, to treating the universe as a clockwork of matter or else as a delusion of mind. It is only the Mystic, the man who accepts the contradictions, who can laugh and walk easily through the world.

Are you surprised that the same civilisation which believed in the Trinity discovered steam? All the great Christian doctrines are of this kind. Look at them carefully and fairly for yourselves. I have only space for two examples. The first is the Christian idea of God. Just as we have all been Agnostics so we have all been Pantheists. In the godhood of youth it seems so easy to say, "Why cannot a man see God in a bird flying and be content?" But then comes a time when we go on and say, "If God is in the birds, let us be not only as beautiful as the birds; let us be as cruel as the birds; let us live the mad, red life of nature." And something that is wholesome in us resists and says, "My friend, you are going mad."

Then comes the other side and we say: "The birds are hateful, the flowers are shameful. I will give no praise to so base an universe." And the wholesome thing in us says: "My friend, you are going mad."

Then comes a fantastic thing and says to us: "You are right to enjoy the birds, but wicked to copy them. There is a good thing behind all these things, yet all these things are lower than you. The Universe is right: but the World is wicked. The thing behind all is not cruel, like a bird: but good, like a man." And the wholesome thing in us says. "I have found the high road."

Now when Christianity came, the ancient world had just reached this dilemma. It heard the Voice of Nature-Worship crying, "All natural things are good. War is as healthy as he flowers. Lust is as clean as the stars." And it heard also the cry of the hopeless Stoics and Idealists: "The flowers are at war: the stars are unclean: nothing but man's conscience is right and that is utterly defeated."

Both views were consistent, philosophical and exalted: their only disadvantage was that the first leads logically to murder and the second to suicide. After an agony of thought the world saw the sane path between the two. It was the Christian God. He made Nature but He was Man.

Lastly, there is a word to be said about the Fall. It can only be a word, and it is this. Without the doctrine of the Fall all idea of progress is unmeaning. Mr. Blatchford says that there was not a Fall but a gradual rise. But the very word "rise" implies that you know toward what you are rising. Unless there is a standard you cannot tell whether you are rising or falling. But the main point is that the Fall like every other large path of Christianity is embodied in the common language talked on the top of an omnibus. Anybody might say, "Very few men are really Manly." Nobody would say, "Very few whales are really whaley."

If you wanted to dissuade a man from drinking his tenth whisky you would slap him on the back and say, "Be a man." No one who wished to dissuade a crocodile from eating his tenth explorer would slap it on the back and say, "Be a crocodile." For we have no notion of a perfect crocodile; no allegory of a whale expelled from his whaley Eden. If a whale came up to us and said: "I am a new kind of whale; I have abandoned whalebone," we should not trouble. But if a man came up to us (as many will soon come up to us) to say, "I am a new kind of man. I am the super-man. I have abandoned mercy and justice"; we should answer, "Doubtless you are new, but you are not nearer to the perfect man, for he has been already in the mind of God. We have fallen with Adam and we shall rise with Christ; but we would rather fall with Satan than rise with you."

You can find more essays from GK Chesterton here.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Truth and Beauty

What do the movies "The Illusionist" and "Life of David Gale" have in common?

They both, when the truth is revealed, cast the heroes in an ugly light, against the intent of the producers.

In contrast, all heresies about Jesus cast Jesus in an ugly light, while only the truth casts Him in a beautiful light. Indeed, He is the Light.

Indeed, of all the religions and philosophies, none can rival the Christianity in terms of beauty of the story.

It is almost as if we were designed to find no other story as beautiful and satisfying as the true story of God taking on flesh to redeem us from our sins and draw us to Himself.

Friday, August 03, 2007

On Hope

Here is an interesting article on hope, relating to my previous post, by Jen.

She says,
I don't think I realized until today how difficult it was to live without hope. When I was an atheist, I had hope in a certain sense -- I was optimistic about how certain events might play out in my life or in the world in general -- but there was no greater hope with a source higher than this world, no opportunity for happy endings outside of humanity and the material universe.

But go read it all.

"There is Only One Real Sadness: Not to be Saints"

Here is an interesting article on suffering and the problem of evil, via Mark Shea.

An excerpt:
Greek tragedies all address this thorny question: the best answer they could give is that the meaning of suffering is to teach foolish men wisdom. Ajax, driven by hubris declared boldly that "to succeed with the help of the gods is no great accomplishment." He wanted to succeed on his own without any aid. The gods punished him by madness.

In the Old Testament evil and suffering are clearly linked to sin: man's revolt against God. Throughout the Old Testament, the "chosen people" rebel against God's laws. He sent them prophets; many of them were murdered because man's rebellious heart did not savor their message. God punished them severely. Then they bowed their "stiff neck" for a while. But soon afterward the same scenario was repeated.

My claim is that it is through the supernatural, and through the supernatural alone that the excruciating question of evil and suffering can be satisfactorily enlightened. For it reveals to us a dimension of suffering inaccessible to natural man: suffering as expression of ultimate love. Indeed, "there is no greater love than to give one's life for one's friends."
The supernatural can only come from above. The song it sings cannot be perceived by man's fallen nature. It can only be received on one's knees--as an unmerited gift that man could never conquer by his own strength. Both my husband and Edith Stein discovered the supernatural by reading the lives of saints: Saint Francis of Assisi for him; Teresa of Avila for her. This discovery, which can be called a "Damascus experience," radically changed their lives: they discovered a world the beauty of which they had never suspected. They discovered the madness of divine love that leads God to sacrifice his only Son for our salvation. The supernatural unveils a new morality which does not cancel the natural moral law, but transcends and fulfills it. "Love your enemies"; "do good to those who persecute you"--a morality which combines justice and mercy; strength and weakness--features which cannot be reconciled in purely natural morality.

The message of Christ is a message of joy and peace: but the promise of Mount Tabor is preceded by Golgotha: "let him who wishes to be my disciple carry his cross and follow me." Even though it is the supernatural and the supernatural alone which can heal man's soul, the medicine is not to the taste of man's fallen nature. Humility is bitter to those who "preen" themselves with their accomplishments. When one craves for praise, it is bitter to discover that one is nothing but dust and ashes. It is bitter to acknowledge oneself to be a sinner desperately in need of redemption when one feels oneself to be "a just man" who is not in need of help.
He who, through God's grace, has adopted a supernatural stance will victoriously fight against these "illegitimate sufferings," i.e., the sufferings which are consequences of our false and sinful attitudes. God does not give his grace for such self-inflicted sufferings--this is why they are unbearable--but in his goodness--he does come to the help of those who carry a real cross--a cross that he has chosen for them for their sanctification, and for which they can count on his grace. This is why St. Paul writes that "God does not try us beyond our strength"--something that the natural man contests violently.
(Dr. Alice von Hildebrand)

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