Chesterton on Progress

Lately I’ve been on a reading binge of G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis. I have too much to say on the treasures I’ve found in them to possibly remember to blog about it all. That’s a shame. On the bright side, there’s still lots of good stuff to mention.

One of my favorite paragraphs I’ve come across (maybe, it’s hard to narrow down favorites from such writers) is one in which Chesterton discusses the notion of progress, specifically in relation to the modern world. Everyone likes to talk about progress, though the fever was undoubtedly higher in his day. We still have progressives in politics (of many kinds: economic progressives, cultural progressives, environmental progressives, etc.), and we probably have far more now in theology. In fact, these so-called “progressive” theologians are my chief targets here, whereas Chesterton was more concerned with a political temperament. But much of what he had to say is relevant to either.

A chief characteristic of progressive Christianity is questioning. They like to ask questions regarding what the Bible says about homosexuality, what the Bible says about gender, what the Bible says about salvation, and of course just how seriously we need to take what the Bible says at all. The framing assumption is that we must ask these questions afresh because the classical answers are, we now see, in some way broken, obsolete, or unrealistic. For many of these issues, a sufficient Chestertonian response might be that the classical answers have not been tried and found wanting; they have been found difficult and left untried. But I disgress. My point here isn’t about whether the progressive’s questioning process will lead us to better answers than the traditional ones or not. My point, or rather Chesterton’s, is that you can’t really call yourself “progressive” in such a state of uncertainty. If you are stuck in questioning phase, you can’t genuinely say whether you’ve been making progress towards anything or not, since you don’t know where you’re going. And in Chesterton’s day, it didn’t matter how efficiently and skillfully you could run the the government. If you don’t know where you’re running it to, you can’t say that “progress” is underway. I’ll let Chesterton himself elaborate and leave it at that. The quote is from his excellent, excellent book What’s Wrong with the World:

As enunciated today, “progress” is simply a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative. We meet every ideal of religion, patriotism, beauty, or brute pleasure with the alternative ideal of progress—that is to say, we meet every proposal of getting something that we know about, with an alternative proposal of getting a great deal more of nobody knows what. Progress, properly understood, has, indeed, a most dignified and legitimate meaning. But as used in opposition to precise moral ideals, it is ludicrous. So far from it being the truth that the ideal of progress is to be set against that of ethical or religious finality, the reverse is the truth. Nobody has any business to use the word “progress” unless he has a definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals. Nobody can be progressive without being doctrinal; I might almost say that nobody can be progressive without being infallible—at any rate, without believing in some infallibility. For progress by its very name indicates a direction; and the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress. Never perhaps since the beginning of the world has there been an age that had less right to use the word “progress” than we. In the Catholic twelfth century, in the philosophic eighteenth century, the direction may have been a good or a bad one, men may have differed more or less about how far they went, and in what direction, but about the direction they did in the main agree, and consequently they had the genuine sensation of progress. But it is precisely about the direction that we disagree. Whether the future excellence lies in more law or less law, in more liberty or less liberty; whether property will be finally concentrated or finally cut up; whether sexual passion will reach its sanest in an almost virgin intellectualism or in a full animal freedom; whether we should love everybody with Tolstoy, or spare nobody with Nietzsche;—these are the things about which we are actually fighting most. It is not merely true that the age which has settled least what is progress is this “progressive” age. It is, moreover, true that the people who have settled least what is progress are the most “progressive” people in it. The ordinary mass, the men who have never troubled about progress, might be trusted perhaps to progress. The particular individuals who talk about progress would certainly fly to the four winds of heaven when the pistol-shot started the race. I do not, therefore, say that the word “progress” is unmeaning; I say it is unmeaning without the previous definition of a moral doctrine, and that it can only be applied to groups of persons who hold that doctrine in common. Progress is not an illegitimate word, but it is logically evident that it is illegitimate for us. It is a sacred word, a word which could only rightly be used by rigid believers and in the ages of faith.

Chesterton on Progress

Lewis on Animal Eternity

I recently read C. S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain, which I had avoided for some time under the impression that it was simply a stock presentation of a free will apologetic. I’m not a proper Calvinist, as most of you know, but I’m still far too Reformed to be interested in such an argument. But my recent Lewis binge taught me to expect something different, and behold, what I found was delightful.

A great deal of interesting reason is present in The Problem of Pain, but one of the more intriguing sections is in Lewis’ final chapter, on animal pain. He mentions how most arguments which justify human pain do not work on animals, and in the process of exploring alternatives suggests that perhaps, maybe, if we may speculate, they’re made this such a recompense as animal immortality. This is not necessarily to say that animals are inherently immortal. They may well need a resurrection to live forever. (Of course, many Christians think the same of humans.)

In particular, Lewis is only really concerned about animals which may be said to possess some sort of consciousness. Animals without consciousness, he argues, certainly “have pain” but do not truly experience it, and thus it is morally irrelevant. But in the higher animals, they seem to have a true experience of suffering, one which, because of their amoral natures, cannot be redeemed or justified by spiritual formation or anything similar. By most accounts, they do not even receive recompense in another life.

These standard accounts are the target of Lewis’ alternative speculation. Animal pain must have some divine justification, and while God has not seen fit to give us any more than a glimpse into His plans for the animal kingdom, it may be worth considering some possible answer. Thus Lewis argues animal immortality as an option.

His proposal makes use of the word “in,” which he regards as so Biblically enigmatic. Men are lost in Adam and saved in Christ, a reality into which Lewis suspects is deeper and richer than we could imagine. So he takes the “in” concept and hypothetically extends it to the higher animals. We are raised by being in Christ; might animals be raised in us?

Lewis here seems to invoke something of a relational ontology. He points out that the higher animals always seem to be highest, in abilities and personalities, in relation to humans. A wild dog may simply act like a clever beast, but a well-trained dog can become almost like a child. Dolphins are impressive in the sea, but reach more glory in more complexity in the company of trainers. (Anyone who denies this latter point either has never been to a dolphin show or is ideologically blinded.)

Thus Lewis suggests that these animals, while naturally conscious in some way, may attain a more full level of individuality and personality in their human relations which elevates their status. They become “in us” something which can indeed be raised on the last day, and by participation in the human household find a place in the divine restoration which pertains first to men.

Whether this account is correct or not is, of course, highly debatable. It’s also difficult to argue simply because of the paucity of biblical/theological evidence one way or the other. But regardless it is very intriguing, and I think it’s worth thinking over for, if nothing else, the very realistic way it pushes us to consider the relationship between animals and humans. If men are to animals in some respect as God is to men, is animal resurrection so far-fetched? Or are animal personality and consciousness really all that difficult to hold?

Lewis on Animal Eternity

Wondering about Biblical Anthropology and African Kings

Here’s a post to get you all pondering the real meaning of Genesis.

I recently ran back across two odd little websites I had found a couple years ago, namely Just Genesis and Biblical Anthropology. The two blogs are run by Alice C. Linsley, an Orthodox Christian anthropologist. She is essentially on a one-woman project to correct bad interpretations of Genesis by studying the book from the perspective of anthropological study. She makes use of genetics, archaeology, studies in ancient mythology, and other such things to understood Genesis in a way which, she claims, is far more faithful to the text, the culture, and reality itself than the common approaches.

That said, Linsley has no interest in being a revisionist or progressive or liberal or whatever else. Her goal, as far as I can honestly ascertain, is simply to understand the Bible as God gave it. For example, in a welcome post to new readers of Just Genesis, she says:

People often say “I read the Bible, but I don’t understand it.” It is important to pray for wisdom before reading the Bible, seeking the Spirit’s guidance to understand and not misrepresent Scripture. People who insist on using Bible verses as ammunition in disagreements are not under the Spirit’s guidance. They are attempting to co-opt Scripture to serve their agenda.

Understanding the Bible requires looking at the material with fresh eyes. If you are attempting to force the material into a pre-conceived idea, you will never see the big picture. Outdated and erroneous interpretations are set aside when fresh eyes investigate the Scriptures. Biblical Anthropology is simply another tool to help us better understand God’s plan for humanity as it is revealed in the Bible. Biblical Anthropology does not rely on a single discipline, but rather seeks to understand by looking at how Biblical data aligns with findings in multiple sciences, including linguistics, DNA studies, anthropology, archaeology, and climate studies.

So, what’s so interesting about the way that Linsley reads Genesis? I won’t go into too much detail, but here are a few of her more notable claims:

  • The Hebrews of Genesis were actually the same as the Horites, a red-skinned, ruler-priestly clan who first originated in Saharan Africa, not Mesopotamia. In fact, much of Genesis 1-11 takes place in Africa, not Mesopotamia.
  • The genealogies of Genesis 4-5 are not simple birth genealogies, but Horite king lists, and this can be demonstrated on solid anthropological grounds.
  • Cain and Seth were Horite kings who married daughters of Enoch, another important African king.
  • Adam is therefore either a literary archetype for the father of the human race or perhaps a literal ancestor of the Horites.
  • Noah was an African king, and the Flood which affected his entire kingdom (colloquially the “whole world”) probably came from the Nile.

But perhaps the most interesting part of her project is the connection of Israel’s Messianic hope with the Egyptian religion of the Horites. According to Linsley, the protoevangelium in Genesis 3:15 actually was originally understood as a kind of Messianic promise (contrary to the conclusions of many modern scholars). This hope was developed and carried on by the Horites (read: Hebrews), who in the early days worshipped God by the Egyptian name Ra and his Son by the name Horus. They anticipated a day when Horus would come and save them, perhaps by his death. (This amounts to an inversion of many secular Horus/Jesus theories: many accuse the Jesus story of robbing from old myths like of Horus, but Linsley basically argues that the Horus myth was the development of a divine promise which Jesus actually fulfilled.)

Honestly, I’m neither an anthropologist, nor an Old Testament scholar, nor a student of Ancient Near East history and culture (or, if Linsley is right, Nilo-Sarahic). So I have no clear way to judge the plausibility of her claims, and I do have to wonder why no one else has picked up on this if it’s actually true. Nonetheless, if there happens to be any truth to what she says, it would be massively important to interpreting Genesis. This makes me very curious, and I wish I could find someone scholarly enough to check on what she says. If anyone has leads on that, let me know. In the meantime, poke around and see what you think about Alice Linsley’s work.

Wondering about Biblical Anthropology and African Kings

Returning Richly from Exile (Summer’s Here)

Well, after a two-month partially unintentional hiatus, I’m back. I had a great deal of work and writing to do for school these past many weeks, and combined with my other responsibilities I’ve had almost no time for blogging. Fortunately, I’ve now submitted the last of my papers for the semester, and I’m free to blog again.

At this particular moment, I don’t have any fresh things to post, but I will shortly. A number of ideas have been percolating since I last wrote, and most of them I imagine will find expression sson enough. In the meantime, I have retooled my Essays page on the top of the blog. It now includes PDFs of all my essays, except the informal ones, and is a faster load for finding things. Of particular note are the new batch of papers I’ve written for the semester. I’ll let you look at them on your own, but I’ll highlight my paper on regeneration for my Reformation theology class, as I think it turned out the best. Check out the other essays, too, though, to see if any pique your interest.

On another note, this is not truly my first post since I finished my papers. My real first post is on my other blog, Being in Christ, and is dedicated to a friend of mine who has received some fairly awful medical news. I mention it because she needs all the prayers she can have, and I imagine that perhaps someone else is struggling with similar terrors. So consider checking that out, too.

Returning Richly from Exile (Summer’s Here)