Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Anthropocentrism in Action

Back again, briefly, from my other responsibilites. I've got more to say about anthropocentrism, but re-reading my last post, it seemed to me a trifle abstract at points. What do I mean when I say "bowing down", and what does "focusing on our own works" look like?

Fortunately, I have an example near to hand. Last April, on the date of the funeral of the late Pope John Paul the Great, I was listening to an interview on a local radio station. The guest was a well-known American political commentator who had just returned from Rome, and the host was asking him about his visit there. I was intrigued that the man had gone over to Rome but was back in the States before the funeral took place, but as I listened to his comments, it became clear why he had returned when he did.

The first thing the commentator did was go on and on about the number of people who were in Rome. He directly attributed this to JPG's fame - that he had been "probably the most famous man in the world." He went on at length on this theme of fame, and made several speculations about whether the next pope could hope to attain that level of fame. When asked about the funeral, the commentator spoke of all the powerful and influential people who were in Rome for the ceremony, and how impressed he was by all these Big Names who had assembled for the event.

As this character nattered on, it began to dawn on me: this guy was missing the whole point. Not only was he not seeing what JPG's life had been about, he wasn't seeing that other people had seen it. That was what accounted for the throngs filing by in honor and the gathering of the leaders of state. He could not understand a life of sacrifice and devotion to God, and could not even see the aura of holiness which had clung to this man. This well-known political commentator had focused so long and so intently on the world and works of men that he was unable to see the impact of a Greater World upon this one - even when the evidence was staring him in the face. John Paul the Great's bright witness had been a reflection of heaven itself, and it drew people from around the globe to catch one last glimpse - but since this worldling couldn't understand that, he had to interpret it in terms he understood, i.e. fame. The gentle power of his humility and obedience had been used to topple one of the most powerful idolatrous empires in history, and the great of the world had come to pay respect to legacy - but no, those world leaders must only be here to rub elbows and do some behind the scenes moving and shaking.

That interview sticks out in my mind as a textbook example of anthropocentrism. This brilliant and successful political operative was so "stuck on" the works of men that he could not see what was obvious to a simple babushka - that through John Paul, heaven had touched earth.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

What's Wrong With The World?

Clearly I am an ill fit with the “blogosphere”, if that is the proper word. It has been weeks since my last post, but there has been nothing to do about it. I have been preoccupied with parish and other activities, not to mention family and job responsibilities. This has been the earliest I’ve been able to get back here. Hopefully the lag until the next post won’t be so long, but no guarantees!

One of the things about this web logging is that one gets a chance to answer questions that would never be asked - pontification without invitation, so to speak! This post, I’m going to take advantage of that, with the reassurance that any readers who get bored can stop reading.

I’ve often pondered what I might say if someone were to ask me, “In your opinion, what is wrong with the world?” I realize that many heavyweights like il maestro Chesterton himself have taken on this question, and a wise man would hesitate to follow in such prodigious footsteps. I, however, have done some thinking on the topic, and would have an answer ready. “Why”, I would respond, “it’s very simple. What’s wrong with the world is…”

{drum roll please}


{cymbal crash}

{suspicious silence}

That’s right, folks – in my humble opinion, man’s problem is that he thinks too much about himself. He also thinks too much of himself – a cause-and-effect relationship, it would seem. Modern – one might say post-Western – man is obsessed with the works of his own hands, besotted with his own wisdom, and engaged in a totally preoccupying conversation with himself. What matters to modern Man is what modern Man says and does, and everything is interpreted through that lens.

Years ago, I noticed something interesting about men – when they drop their eyes from Christ, they will focus on the greatest thing less than Christ that falls into their vision. Sometimes this greater thing is some aspect of the natural order, which explains everything from the ancient idolatries of nature worship and astrology to the more recent manifestations of the almost rabid obsession with ecology (eco-olatry?) This is not good, but at least the focus is still on something external. But history tells us that it is more common for man to focus on himself – either an idealized image of himself, or something he’s done.

Those familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures will recognize the phenomena. I remember when I was younger being mystified by the Tower of Babel story in Genesis. After all, why should God feel threatened? Even if the silly men thought their tower could reach heaven, God surely knew better. Why not just let them exhaust themselves in futility? They couldn’t reach, much less harm, God. But as I learned more, I realized that God wasn’t threatened at all – He was concerned for His people. The massive civil works project, center of a growing civilization in Mesopotamia, was neither a site of true worship nor a heavenly assault tower, but a monument to the work and power of men. In other words, men were forgetting the good world that God had for them (albeit cleansed by the waters of the Flood), and beginning to once again become obsessed with the work of their own hands. They were building cities, conducting trade, getting busy with their own affairs – in other words, getting distracted by all their makings and doings from the knowledge and worship of the true God. This shift in focus was having an immediate bad effect – according to rabbinic legend, the Tower was the first instance of slavery, of men forcing their brethren to work against their will – but it was the long-term effect that was most poisonous. The less men thought of God, the more they would focus on their own activities, which in turn would push God further from their minds – a vicious cycle.

This also explains something else that used to mystify me. At points in the Hebrew prophetic and wisdom books the authors would jet off on tirades against idols – that is, the physical images themselves. Isaiah 44 is an example – a moving and poetic section of prophecy is almost interrupted by a brutal satire on the efforts of an artisan to create an idol. The prophet heaps almost excessive abuse on the folly of the idol-makers. “All right, Isaiah”, I thought upon my first few readings, “I get the picture. Making idols is foolish – why are you beating this dead horse?” But eventually I began to get it – here was man, made in the image of God, the greatest thing on the face of the earth, bowing to a much lesser thing: something he himself had made. (This leaves aside the question of demonic activity behind idols, which is a legitimate consideration but not germane to this topic.)

If the phrase “bowing down to the works of our own hands” doesn’t typify modern culture, I don’t know what does. We may not be forging and carving like the artisans in Isaiah 44, but that’s only because our current mindset doesn’t run along those channels. We bow down to ideas and ideologies, and to almost anything about ourselves – our careers, our plans, our opinions, our everything. In our minds, it truly is all about us. Even our patterns of learning reflect this. Once the study of the Word of God (Theo-logos) and friendship with wisdom (philo-sophia) were considered the highest studies because they were concerned with the greatest things. Now they are ignored and scorned (“What you gonna do with a philosophy degree?”) The focus of philosophy and theology are things greater than man, and therefore cannot be accepted by the modern mind. Instead our studies focus on man and his works: sociology, psychology, economics, and (of course) politics. Our eyes are steadily wrenched downward, off of anything greater than us that might give us perspective on ourselves, until we spend days and weeks and years without ever looking beyond the world of man and his works. Let me ask any readers something: when was the last time you went out on a clear night and just looked up at the stars for a good long while?

This post is already far too long, so I’ll refrain from further discussion of the symptoms of anthropocentrism and its destructive effects on our lives. I’d welcome thoughts: do you think anthropocentrism is a good description of the root of the problems we face? If so, what solution(s) would you suggest? I’ve got a thought or two, but that will have to wait until a later post.

Monday, October 03, 2005

The Halls of Harfang

I am a longtime reader of C.S. Lewis, and by that I mean that I have been reading his works for about 40 years (since I was about 8). I say this to assure you that I am not a johnny-come-lately fan, given that there is sure to be some “Lewis hype” coming with the imminent release of the film version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. (Given what Peter Jackson did to The Lord of the Rings, I’m suspending judgment until I’ve seen the film.) Not only did I grow up in Narnia, but I’ve read Lewis’ Interplanetary Trilogy as well as almost every theological work he ever wrote, and a few of his “professional” ones (e.g. The Discarded Image, which was a wonderful view into Lewis the Scholar.) I say all this not to establish credentials, but to warn you that occasionally I will draw on Lewis to illustrate some point, and to assure you that when it comes to Lewis, I know whereof I speak.

I recently have been re-reading the Chronicles of Narnia, and I can’t recommend them too highly. Even if you don’t like fantasy, or consider them too juvenile, or consider their symbolism crude, let me assure you that they are well worth your time at several levels. I know they aren’t the same grade of literature as The Lord of the Rings, and they aren’t strict allegory (how could they be, when Lewis had a pathological loathing of literature with a “message”?) They are simply stories of what Lewis saw when he opened the eyes of his imagination. But when someone like Lewis writes what he sees, it is wise to pay close attention, even to seemingly trivial details.

Here’s one example. This time through The Silver Chair (which I consider the best of the series), which I’ve read dozens of times, I actually stopped and thought about what seems a minor matter in the plot: the visit to Harfang. The two children from our world, Scrubb and Pole, are on a mission given them by Aslan. Their escort, a dour marsh-wiggle named Puddleglum, is escorting them through the cold, barren northern lands to look for a ruined giant city. They had been traveling for some time through hard lands and bitter weather when, to their surprise and Puddleglum’s suspicion, they encounter a couple of humans on horseback. One of the pair is a beautiful woman who gives them seemingly comforting news: that the road they are traveling with take them to a hospitable house of “gentle giants” called Harfang. She explains:

And in Harfang you may or may not hear tidings of the City Ruinous, but certainly you shall find good lodgings and merry hosts. You would be wise to winter there or, at the least, to tarry certain days for your ease and refreshment. There you shall have steaming baths, soft beds, and bright hearths; and the roast and the baked and the sweet and the strong will be on the table four times in a day.”

When asked if the giants of Harfang would welcome strange travelers, the lady tells them:

Only tell them that she of the Green Kirtle salutes them by you, and sends them two fair Southern children for the Autumn Feast.”

After the pair ride on, the Narnian travelers discuss the opportunity:

... Puddleglum didn’t want them to go to Harfang at all... Aslan’s signs had said nothing about staying with giants, gentle or otherwise.

The children, on the other hand, who were sick of wind and rain, and skinny fowl roasted over campfires, and hard, cold earth to sleep on, were absolutely dead set to visit the Gentle Giants.

In the end they decide to go there, but what is interesting to note is how the prospect of Harfang affects them in their travels:

... whatever the Lady had intended by telling them about Harfang, the actual effect on the children was a bad one. They could think of nothing but beds and baths and hot meals and how lovely it would be to get indoors. They never talked about Aslan, or even about the lost Prince, now. And Jill gave up her habit of repeating the signs over to herself every night and morning. She said to herself, at first, that she was too tired, but she soon forgot all about it. And though you might have expected that the idea of having a good time at Harfang would have made them more cheerful, it really made them more sorry for themselves and more grumpy and snappy with each other and with Puddleglum.

If you have read the story, you know that the travelers eventually do make it Harfang. There they find welcoming hosts, hot baths, warm meals – everything that the Lady of the Green Kirtle promised. They also find that the Gentle Giants enjoy eating man at their Autumn Feast. They narrowly escape with their lives, but because the story moves from there to more central and exciting themes, it is easy to overlook the “Harfang incident”. But this time through, it especially caught my eye and got me thinking.

After all, aren’t we all on a mission from Aslan, traversing the rough and often cheerless waste called life? And don’t we often long for a little respite – you know, “...steaming baths, soft beds, and bright hearths; and the roast and the baked and the sweet and the strong...”? After all, there’s nothing wrong with these, is there? Of course there isn’t – even in the story, the children were feasted at Cair Paravel upon their arrival in Narnia – but the issue is how we view these things. Do we let the prospect of earthly rest and refreshment eclipse our mission? Does the allure of what we could be enjoying plunge us into self-pity when we have to struggle with the hardships of what we’ve been given to deal with? Do we forget the instructions we’ve been given because we’re too busy grousing about what we’re going through, or dreaming about what we may soon have?

There’s a sense in which the modern secular world, especially in the affluent west, is Harfang. Sure, we have lots of creature comforts, and plenty of ease in which to relax and entertainment to fill our hours – but the Giants who rule the castle are man-eaters. Since the Enlightenment Rationalists of the 18th century and the Romantics of the 19th, they’ve been spinning a flowery tale of mankind leaving behind otherworldly superstitions and building an earthly paradise. Of course, we reaped the harvest of that folly in the 20th century, with the bloody deaths of hundreds of millions, and the carnage continues to this day (1.5 million aborted children a year in America alone.) Yet still we still allow the comforts of the castle to distract us from our mission, and find ourselves counting down the days to the Autumn Feast instead of reciting the instructions we’ve been told to memorize.

Perhaps I shouldn’t generalize – this may be a problem that I alone suffer from. I know how testy I can be if I’ve been planning on a quiet evening to read a book (or whatever), but it gets interrupted by a problem with one of the kids. I know how quickly I fall into self-pity if obedience causes me even the slightest inconvenience – after all, what kind of reward is that for doing good? Don’t I deserve those soft beds instead of this hard ground? But I suspect that this problem is broader than just me, and that the Church has recognized it through the ages. The allure of Harfang has always been with us. That’s one reason why, as I get older, I sympathize more with the classic mortifications like fasting. Some of my evangelical friends can’t understand such things – after all, it’s not like we can earn our salvation, or add anything to Christ’s work on the Cross, can we? Of course we can do neither, but that’s not the point. The point is deliberately, consciously turning out back on Harfang from time to time. Sleeping on cold ground instead of between warm sheets. Bypassing the sumptuous meal in favor of sparse rations, or none at all. Reminding ourselves that we are on a mission, and that rest and feasting will be most appropriate when it is complete. After all, that’s what made Mother Theresa who she was. For many of our brethren throughout the world, the allure of Harfang isn’t much of a stumbling block – they struggle just to make it through a day. But for those of us who live in the shadow of the giant’s home, we would do well to remember that we are on a mission from Aslan and should not be distracted by the prospect of fleshly pleasures – or we just might end up on the table.