Sunday 13 October 2013

The most tolerant, noble, moral, stoical non-Christians, regard Christianity as an evil


In the year 161 Marcus Aurelius Antoninus ascended the Julian throne. Under that strenuous and ethical rationalist, persecution [of the Christian church] began to change.

The self-consciousness of the Empire as regards Christians took, through the mind and person of the Emperor, a more deliberate form. What had been irritation, fury, riots of the blood, became a deliberate moral and intellectual effort. [...] 

The 'good' Emperors had come to regard Christianity as an evil, as all tolerant and noble non-Christian minds tend to do. 

Partly, no doubt, the best Emperors had the highest idea of their duty to the safety of the State. But also they had the highest sense of moral balance and the least sense of the necessity of Redemption.

The worse Emperors—Commodus, Heliogabalus—had a more superstitious impulse which was certainly more in accord with the asserted dogmas of the Gospel.

Gods, and the nature of the Gods, are likely to be better understood by sinful than by stoical minds.

From The Descent of the Dove - a short history of the Holy Spirit in the church, by Charles Williams - 1939


NOTE: A profound observation.

The most moral of non-Christians, if they begin to understand Christianity and take it seriously, often come to regard Christianity as an evil. 

I know this from my own past experience, but I think many lifelong and devout Christians are unaware of the fact. 

As Charles Williams noted; the worst, the most systematic and thorough, persecution of Christians came from the best pagan Emperors. 



Arakawa said...

"The most moral of non-Christians, if they begin to understand Christianity and take it seriously, often come to regard Christianity as an evil."

If true, Christianity (understood properly) is tremendous good news; but if false, it is tremendous evil, since taking it up is a promise (in the long run) to sacrifice all you have, with the answering promise that you will gain all that God owns.

Such sacrifice -- too tremendous for understanding -- cannot be reasonable unless the thing gained by it is also too tremendous for understanding. Thus the CS Lewis trilemma could just as easily be applied to any apparently genuine Christian, as Lewis applied it to Jesus Christ. Either the followers of Christ really have supernatural assurance of their adoption by God (which would imply that Christianity is true) -- or, they are liars or insane, and thus observably dangerous people, since their creed is observably contagious.

"Gods, and the nature of the Gods, are likely to be better understood by sinful than by stoical minds."

What is ironic is that, insofar as Williams had some kind of original insight into Christianity, he would exemplify the opposite extreme, since he combined theological versimilitude with dubious outward conduct.

(I know there are people here who will bristle at the very words "original insight into Christianity", and perhaps that is for good reason; or, perhaps not. This is a point of genuine schism in how Christianity is to be understood.)

Arakawa said...

Belated correction to the above thought: when I say "opposite extreme", I mean that Williams would be the opposite extreme to Marcus Aurelius, and thus a supposed example of a sinful mind understanding God.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Arak - My feeling is that you are conflating salvation and theosis.

Salvation (in the sense of resurrection and eternal life) is not such an impossibly demanding things, surely? Else Jesus could not have come to save sinners (like The Good Thief). The conditions are ('merely') repentance and acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Saviour.

But theosis is quantitative, behaviour dependent.

Williams certainly behaved sinfully - but this need not matter in terms of salvation; the main concern I have is whether he repented; or whether he was able to rationalize and excuse his behaviour to himself, and pretend to himself that it was not sinful.

Arakawa said...


"My feeling is that you are conflating salvation and theosis."

Perhaps. In another sense I am confusing early Christianity with modern (i.e. end times) Christianity. The spiritual possibilities are just not the same, and there are many ways in which encountering a modern Christian is not as threatening to one's worldview.

In some ways, the separation of salvation vs. theosis is a crucially important thing to understand, in order to realistically accept what one's present possibilities consist in. In another sense I am starting to suspect the distinction is artificial in the long run. (CS Lewis presents it that way in Mere Christianity, when stating that there is no 'minimal' commitment to Christianity, that to take up Christianity is an agreement to allow God to make you perfect, and that He means to complete as much of the process as He can during this life.)

If I recall correctly, your earlier position was that salvation was a relatively simple thing to attain (merely a question of repentance), whereas the pursuit of theosis (e.g. as a monk) involves staking this salvation at high risk in order to get the chance to end up in a higher position in Heaven, by growing in virtue and acquiring the Holy Spirit.

This relied on a picture of the afterlife in which anyone who arrives there is 'frozen' in some regard. If they have not repented, they are no longer able to repent. If they have repented but have not persevered in acquiring the Holy Spirit, they are placed in a station below those who have laboured to attain Sainthood. This seems to follow from the fact that there is a permanent hierarchy of the holy in Heaven, so if I arrive there 'below' a Saint, I will always arrive there 'below' that Saint; and to wish to 'overtake' that Saint is inherently sinful.

However, there is also a promise that those who make it to Heaven will be able to eternally progress towards the perfection of God's estate ("gaining all that God owns", as I said earlier), and there will be no end point to that progress.

I don't think these facts are contradictory. If everyone is a family is progressing, they may eternally remain in the same relative hierarchy, even as each of them flourishes without limit; indeed, family relations present a type of this situation. My father is above me because, not in spite of, the fact that his task is to help me grow and attain to his estate. If I, in turn, become a father (attaining all the attributes that my father had), that does not overturn our prior relations. Even if I am a father myself, my father has now attained to an immeasurably more venerable estate -- that of a grandfather. Likewise, in the case of my elder brother, there may come a day when I am as old (and hopefully as mature) as he is -- but he himself will have grown older and wiser during that time.

In a catholic perspective, the eternal progression is guaranteed because God is infinitely Good whereas created beings are finite, and so even with continuous and unhindered acquisition of grace the blessed will spend all eternity rising to His estate. In a Mormon perspective, which does not insist on the ontological primacy of God, I would assume the eternal progression is taken as an axiom, and God Himself remains above us because he is our Father (as per above), and because he is a being who is also progressing in time (though, being of perfect virtue, God's progression consists not in acquiring virtue but in raising up children like unto Himself).

And indeed, without some kind of progression in Heaven, I am not able to make sense of the promise that salvation is there for the taking, available even to the Good Thief. Since, if I am saved merely by the 'minimal' amount of repentance necessary (confessing my sin, without the opportunity to overcome it in this life), then my sin still defines so much of who I am that, without an opportunity to change further, eternal existence would become intolerable.

Arakawa said...

I would add that, opposed to this optimistic variety of the Christian view (that of eternal progression; either towards a God who is perfect and unchanging, or below a God who only ever grows even better), is exactly the metaphysics that underlies stoicism, which is purely cyclical.

Even if stoicism emphasizes personal virtue, the results of that virtue eventually come to nothing. If the world is destroyed in the end, exactly the same world will rise from the ashes, with exactly the same mistakes. What goes up must come down; even in the matter of sin and repentance, we can only expect that the dog will return to his vomit given enough time. It takes some faith to repent sincerely, when the this-worldly evidence says that every propensity of your nature is to cycle right back out of repentance into sin.

And coming back to the reconciliation of hierarchy and progress... both are ultimately necessary. If we take reality as a hierarchy without progress, we get pagan hopelessness ("know thy place, overweening mortal, and be content with having what little you have"). If we take progress without hierarchy, we get Lucifer and the modern Left, whose idea of growth is to overthrow God, which in practice means inverting every single virtue and rejecting every Good which they envied God for having in the first place -- because otherwise those things serve as a reminder that God is above and everyone else is looking up at Him.

Titus Didius Tacitus said...

John Henry Newman, Apologia pro Vita Sua: "And first, the initial doctrine of the infallible teacher must be an emphatic protest against the existing state of mankind. Man had rebelled against his Maker. It was this that caused the divine interposition: and the first act of the divinely accredited messenger must be to proclaim it. The Church must denounce rebellion as of all possible evils the greatest. She must have no terms with it; if she would be true to her Master, she must ban and anathematise it. This is the meaning of a statement which has furnished matter for one of those special accusations to which I am at present replying: I have, however, no fault at all to confess in regard to it; I have nothing to withdraw, and in consequence I here deliberately repeat it. I said, "The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse." I think the principle here enunciated to be the mere preamble in the formal credentials of the Catholic Church, as an Act of Parliament might begin with a "_Whereas_." It is because of the intensity of the evil which has possession of mankind, that a suitable antagonist has been provided against it; and the initial act of that divinely-commissioned power is of course to deliver her challenge and to defy the enemy. Such a preamble then gives a meaning to her position in the world, and an interpretation to her whole course of teaching and action.


Rebellion includes things like married men having lust in their hearts (but not doing anything about it) because they see a beautiful woman, refusal or inability to believe absurd doctrines, and possibly fig trees not bearing fruit out of season.

If you want Pax Deorum, this is not it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@TDT - Interesting passage! I think it highlights why - despite efforts - I could not succeed in liking Newman, nor really even appreciating him.

I would regard this as a truth expressed partially and misleadingly. The proper way to express it would be more like CS Lewis when he says (something like) that society will end, civilization will end, the earth will end, and the universe will end - but each human soul is immortal, and will personally observe and experience all this happening.

Therefore one soul is 'more important than' the world.

But the world is important!

Bruce Charlton said...

@Arakawa - Thanks for these analyses and clarifications.

I suppose it would be fair to say that most or all conceptualizations of theosis and Heaven are dominated by the problem of understanding time and eternity.

If time is emphasized, then Heaven must be some kind of eternal progression in order to be Heaven; if eternity is emphasized, then Heaven is seen as an unending blissful moment - and progression is impossible because everything is 'frozen'.

The Orthodox version of theosis is one in which there is a freezing of the hierarchy of Heaven around the time of death (seemingly delayed for ?40 days during which there is adjustment) the Roman Catholic is similar but with a role of purgatory as an adjustment.

I think most Protestants seem to believe that the soul's status is frozen at the 'moment of death' - and that nothing can influence it after that - some Protestants believe that the soul's status is predetermined even before mortal life - in which case theosis is meaningless.

Mormonism takes the opposite, dynamic view in which time is eternal and linear - but if pressed, this eventually leads to an incomprehensible infinite regress of Gods and Universes - which probably subverts itself.

My feeling is that ALL POSSIBLE metaphysics becomes either incomprehensible or nonsense if pressed back and back - if we keep asking 'why?'- because the (?absurd) rigmarole of infinite Gods infinitely creating and ruling infinite universes itself invites the question 'why?'.

We need to accepts that there is a point, a starting point or foundation, at which it is acceptable to respond with 'It Just IS'.

For Mormonism this is *probably* most realistically the point at which God the Father just IS, rather than trying to explain where He came from.

(Mainstream Classical theology has its analogous 'Just IS' assumptions, such as creation-from-nothing; and the refusal to explain how to God can be omnipotent yet human will is free.)

After all, Mormons are apparently happy to accept the assumption that matter and the laws of the universe JUST ARE facts of all possible existence within which God exists - in principle this could as appropriately apply to God.

On other the other hand such ultimate metaphysical consequences are NOT all equivalent, and have consequences - or at least, tend to push in certain directions.

And, Men being what they are! - we tend to mock the 'Just IS' assumptions of other people, while regarding our own as sacred mysteries.

I would say that until someone is able to recognize their own Just IS assumptions, they are fundamentally metaphysically naive, they are not DOING metaphysics. They are instead doing a kind of apologetics: that is explaining some of the consequences of their metaphysical assumptions.

Which is fine, and there is no need at all to do metaphysics (which is just as well because hardly anybody *can* do it!) - but it is as well to recognize what is going-on, and what is not.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

"It is because of the intensity of the evil which has possession of mankind, that a suitable antagonist has been provided against it; and the initial act of that divinely-commissioned power is of course to deliver her challenge and to defy the enemy."

Thanks to Arakawa for this Newman quote. Here is, in the same vein, what Chesterton wrote to his mother the day he was baptized in the Catholic Church: "I have thought about you, and all that I owe to you and my father, not only in the way of affection, but of the ideals of honour and freedom and charity and all other good things you always taught me: and I am not conscious of the smallest break or difference in those ideals but only of a new and necessary way of fighting for them. I think, as Cecil did, that the fight for the family and the free citizen and everything decent must now be waged by [the] one fighting form of Christianity." (Chesterton’s Biography by Maisie Ward, Chapter 23)

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

Sorry for the mistake in my last post: the Newman quote was made by Titus Didius Tacitus. Thank you. I always liked all what I read from Newman.

Commodore said...

That seems a rather broad and uncharitable brush to smear Protestants with! But I suppose that is ancillary to the point of the post, which isn't really emphasized enough.

A good reminder; the Enemy's best troops are of course his most virtuous; moral, disciplined, brave, altogether admirable except for being wrong.

Samson J. said...

Rebellion includes things like married men having lust in their hearts (but not doing anything about it) because they see a beautiful womanS

What does this mean?

Ron said...

Why would the most moral of non-Christians, if they begin to understand Christianity and take it seriously, often come to regard Christianity as an evil? By comparison, would a physically superior specimen, an Olympic athlete, for example, also come to regard the medical profession as an evil? At most, they would regard it as unnecessary for themselves, but surely not as an evil.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ron - Well the observation is that this is what generally happens - what is needed is an explanation for it; and I think the explanation is that of Pride.

The most moral and noble of Men naturally (that is, in the absence of divine revelation to the contrary) see themselves as superior; and cannot comprehend why they must acknowledge their state of sin and repent.

Anonymous said...

What were some of Williams dubious actions? I never would have guessed anything roguish from his writings. I always kind of slotted him in the interesting but tame and donnish box with Lewis.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Anon (please don't post as Anon!) - If you go to my 'Tolkien's Notion Club Papers blog (sidebar on the left), and word search for Williams you can read about this; but it is well known in all the main sources (eg. Humphrey Carpenter's The Inklings)