Monday, 8 December 2014

Escaping the Modern Prison

The Power of Ancient Books

With approach of Advent, we decided to take up again the ancient Christian classic, On the Incarnation by Athanasius. [Translated and edited by Sister Penelope Lawson.  (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1946.)]  C. S. Lewis wrote an introduction to this edition, in which he commends the old books to Christians.  He warns of the dangers of reading modern Christian books exclusively, writing:
A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it.  It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications) often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. . . .

Every age has its own outlook.  It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.  We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.  And that means the old books.  All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook--even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. . . . The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.  [Op cit., p.xiii.]
But there is nothing magically superior about old Christian books.
People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we.  But not the same mistakes.  They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us.  [Ibid., p. xiv.]

Now, of course, the "old books" were often written amidst great controversy amongst Christians, debating this or that matter.  Often-times the polemical language employed in these great tomes of the past is offensively grating to modern, politically correct ears.  The public debates of the Schoolmen were robust affairs: arguments and evidences were frequently spiced up with ad hominem insults.  They too, as Lewis points out, were captive to the styles and fashions of their age.  We are reminded, for example, of Calvin's scathing rejection of Anabaptist "madness", which is so offensive to modern notions of Christian love, patience, and tolerance.  Yet Calvin himself married an Anabaptist widow and loved her dearly.  He was also one of the most successful at building friendships with Anabaptist folk, mixing with them socially, and bringing many to a better understanding of the faith. 

But, says, Lewis, never let these controversies lead to to a superficial conclusion that the Church of Christ is hopelessly divided, and "that Christianity is a word of so many meanings that it means nothing at all." 
Measured against the ages "mere Christianity" turns out to be no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible.  I know it, indeed, to my cost.  In the days when I still hated Christianity, I learned to recognise, like some all to familiar smell, that almost unvarying something which met me, now in Puritan Bunyan, now in Anglican Hooker, now in Thomist Dante. . . . It was of course varied; and yet--after all--so unmistakably the same; recognisable, not to be evaded, the odour which is death to us until we allow it to become life. [Ibid., p. xv.]
Thus, with great pleasure and delight, we begin again to peruse On the Incarnation.  Many of the heresies of the modern age have had to do with the "humanising" of Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.  It fits with the prevailing naturalism of our day, congruent and agreeable to the modern mind, as it fits easily into our established religions of secularism and atheism.  Kenotic Christology, Liberation Theology, Christian Marxism, existential Christianity--and so, ad nauseam all manifest our dominant Unbelieving world-views being insinuated into the faith in order to pursue fashionability. 

Ten minutes of reading On the Incarnation is all it takes to expose such modern and post-modern representations for what they are: defalcations and desertions from Holy Writ and the Holy Catholic Church.

No comments: