Wednesday, January 30, 2008

More on early Christianity

In my answer to Brian Holtz’s challenge, I make the following statement:

Or is it more likely that the first 20% of Christian history was pretty much like the other 80%, with the faith defined by a stable creed authorized by the Church and persisting in the face of heresies that swirled around it?

I would like to expand on this statement a bit.

It is natural, when looking at the condition of the Church and Christianity today, to look for a “golden age” in the past when Christians were united in doctrine and in praising the Lord, and Christianity existed in its “perfect” or at least “best” condition. It is also natural to suppose that this golden age existed early on and that Christian history has consisted largely of various fallings away from that golden moment. This seems to me to be something like the view of a lot of evangelical Protestants, who seem to operate under the assumption that the best way to arrive at the true Faith is to attempt a reconstruction of Christianity as it existed in the first century; that is, they try to overleap two-thousand years of Christian tradition into a supposed early, golden age of Christianity. But is there any reason to suppose that there ever was such a golden moment? Maybe the state of Christianity today, with many different sects voicing competing claims to possession of the true form of the Faith, is the natural state of Christianity. Maybe a cacophony of competing voices is the way Christianity has always been.

The Gospel of Luke begins in the following manner:

Since many have undertaken to set in order a narrative concerning those matters which have been fulfilled among us, even as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having traced the course of all things accurately from the first, to write to you in order, most excellent Theophilus; that you might know the certainty concerning the things in which you were instructed.

We see that, even as the Gospel of Luke was being written, there were already many competing narratives concerning Jesus Christ. What does Luke tell us will distinguish his account from the others? Luke’s account is not merely an historical reconstruction of the life of Christ, but is based on the testimony of “eyewitnesses” and “ministers of the word” who “delivered them to us.” In other words, Luke’s account is distinguished from others because it is written with authority. Luke writes as the voice of an already existing sacred tradition, and it is his grounding in the tradition that distinguishes his account from others. The pattern for Christian history is set: The faith is defined by authorized witnesses speaking in the context of a sacred tradition, who periodically publish documents for the edification of the faithful, so that they “might know the certainty concerning the things in which you were instructed.”

Notice that Luke does not appear scandalized by the fact that there exist competing versions of the Faith. He seems to take it as a natural fact; he does not pine for an earlier Christianity in which his voice was the only one. In fact, Luke teaches us that even during the active ministry of Christ Himself there were different Christianities [Luke 9:49-50]:

John answered, "Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he doesn't follow with us." Jesus said to him, "Don't forbid him, for he who is not against us is for us."

Apparently Luke was not worried that there are competing Christian voices because neither is Jesus Christ worried. That has been the natural state of affairs in Christianity from the beginning. But neither do Luke and Christ doubt that there is an authoritative voice in the cacophony, and that such a voice is readily distinguished. It is distinguished as the voice of authoritative tradition [Luke 24:45-49]:

Then he opened their minds, that they might understand the Scriptures. He said to them, "Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. Behold, I send forth the promise of my Father on you. But wait in the city of Jerusalem until you are clothed with power from on high."

The situation is continued in the Pauline epistles. A regular concern in the epistles is Paul’s struggles to keep the churches he founded from straying from the true Faith. Time and again he admonishes his flock not to be tempted to follow other voices. He gives reasons and defenses of the Faith for sure, but the fundamental reason he gives that his Gospel should be followed is the authority with which he taught it.

What we know of early Christianity indicates that it was a lot like late-Roman Christianity, medieval Christianity, early-modern Christianity, and contemporary Christianity. A lot of people running around claiming to have the true interpretation of the faith, with one steady, authoritative voice consistently proclaiming the same Gospel across time. This is why I don't get worked up when the newspapers breathlessly announce the discovery of a new Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Judas or the remains of some bizarre quasi-Christian first century sect, or when scholars announce a radical new interpretation of the Bible that puts paid to orthodox faith. Of course there were all varieties of heresies proclaimed right from the beginning; and of course the New Testament documents can be forced into supporting non-Christian doctrines. It was ever thus. And it gives no reason for supposing that the Church's witness to the truth has not been consistent from the beginning.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Atheist Challenge

The Secular Web has a link to an atheist challenge by Brian Holtz. His actual arguments are here.
My answer to the challenge is here.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Marriage and Love

There is an interesting My Turn column in the latest issue of Newsweek. The title is Yes to Love, No to Marriage. The column is the self-defense of a woman who “doesn’t need a piece of paper” to prove that she is committed to her lover Jeff for life. As is typical today, the outstanding feature of the column is its egocentrism. Marriage must justify itself before the court of the Almighty, Autonomous “I”, and if it cannot, then it must be summarily dismissed.

Of course marriage will never survive such a trial, for its very essence is the submission of the autonomous self to something greater than itself. That is why marriage has always been a public institution and, in the Church, a public sacrament. The public vows of the husband and wife are an acknowledgment that, in marriage, what happens is greater than either of them individually or even the both of them put together. Marriage is, in a very real sense, the death of the self; for true marriage involves the death of the purely autonomous, egocentric self that measures everything from the perspective of its own needs and desires. But in that death, the self may find itself reborn into a new life in union with the spouse and the community. Instead of “I”, there is “We”; the “We” that in its most fundamental nature consists of husband and wife, but one that naturally extends itself into the life of the community through children. Marriage is an institution authorized and witnessed by the public because, in forming the union of marriage, the couple creates the foundation for public life itself.

The author writes that “Meeting Jeff – an intelligent, creative, thoughtful man – became the icing on the rich cake of a life not wasted cruising singles bars and pining over lost loves.” What a metaphor for the egocentric life! Lovers once waxed eloquent about how their spouses completed them, how they were half a person without them, how they would die without them. But a cake – especially a “rich” one – is complete in itself without icing. Icing is nice to have but a cake can get along quite nicely without it. I wonder if Jeff was inspired by the news that he is the icing on the author’s cake. Maybe he is as egocentric as her and assumed that he was the cake and she was the icing. If we must use baking metaphors, then spouses in true marriage are like yeast and dough; they can do nothing apart from each other. But when they come together in something larger than themselves (say, an oven), they create something greater and more substantial than either of them; something that is not just good for themselves, but good for others as well.

Despite herself, the truth about marriage seems not to have entirely escaped the author. She laments the fact that if a couple does not perform a publicly recognized marriage ceremony, “some people just don’t give any weight to your commitment.” Of course not; a publicly recognized marriage ceremony just is the way the public gives weight to commitments. Her disappointment is like the disappointment of a witness who discovers that people won’t believe her if she refuses to swear an oath before testifying. And what does she care if anyone “gives weight” to her commitment? What happened to the glorious independence that sneers at “pieces of paper” and “pretty white dresses?”

The author has “lived life mostly on her own terms.” One can appreciate the strength of will in such a statement. Unfortunately, both the world and human nature is created on its own terms, not terms of our choosing. The best things in life, like marriage, can only really be experienced if we submit ourselves to their terms rather than our own.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Into the Wild, Kierkegaard, and the Herd

The aesthetic life in its radical form (e.g. Chris McCandless) seems to be unconsciously based on the following syllogism:

1. Most men lead meaningless, desperate lives.

2. Most men lead a life that conforms to cultural and societal norms: Getting a job, buying a house, raising a family, etc.

3. Therefore, conformity to cultural norms leads to meaninglessness and despair.

4. Furthermore, the discovery of meaning and truth can be done only in opposition to or at least outside cultural norms.

Now as a matter of logic, 3 and 4 obviously do not follow from 1 and 2. I am sure there is a Latin phrase that captures the fallacy, but I don’t know what it is. In any case, the syllogism leads to a concern in the aesthetic man to separate himself from the “herd” of humanity. Since the circumstances of most men lead to meaninglessness and despair, rejection of those circumstances through a radical lifestyle seems to offer the chance of discovering meaning and truth. This adds a further qualification to the external circumstances for which the aesthetic man seeks: They must not only be radical and dangerous but novel. To the extent that they have been experienced before by someone else, they “lose” their power to confer transcendence. Thus the author of Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer, relates his own dangerous adventures in mountain climbing, where it is clear that a key component of his adventures was the novelty of the mountain-climbing routes he attempted. Similarly, the wine-taster or opera-lover will not be satisfied with a product that the mass of humanity might enjoy; critical to the experience of transcendence is the exclusivity of it.

Consider Chris McCandless and his bus in the following thought experiment. Suppose he made it out of his Alaskan adventure alive, then discovered from the locals that his adventure was nothing new and that young men had been periodically living “in the wild” in the bus for years. Would the “transcendence” of this experience suddenly evaporate? Would he feel the need to seek out some yet more obscure and dangerous adventure? I suspect so, and this reveals the fallacy behind the radical-lifestyle aesthete’s claim to being unique and unconditioned by society. The difference between the radical-lifestyle aesthete and the boring bourgeoisie is that the latter defines himself through a positive relationship to society, while the former defines himself through a negative relationship to it. But both nonetheless take their cue from society, just in different directions.

Kierkegaard teaches us that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference. The man who is truly independent of society neither loves it nor hates it; he is indifferent to it. It doesn’t matter to him whether the lives of none, some or all of the rest of humanity are indistinguishable from his own in external circumstances. He knows that what counts is the inward aspect of his experience, not the outward, empirically visible aspect. This is Kierkegaard’s man in the ethical stage of existence…

Into the Wild and Kierkegaard

No doubt you have heard of Kierkegaard’s famous three stages of existence, the aesthetic the ethical, and the religious. The meaning of the stages may be a little different than what his suggested by the words. The word “aesthetic”, for example, may bring to mind wine-tasters, opera-lovers, poets and artists. The aesthete is someone who lives for the finer things in life but doesn’t take a lot of personal risk. The case of Chris McCandless of Into the Wild, the young man who tried to live on his own with only the bare essentials in the Alaskan wilderness and died of starvation, would not fall under this common understanding of the aesthetic life.

But Kierkegaard gives a different meaning to “aesthetic”, a meaning that would include the case of McCandless under the aesthetic life. For Kierkegaard, the aesthete is not necessarily someone who is risk-averse or is content to live his life in art galleries and wineries. In fact, in comparison to the ethical life, Kierkegaard’s aesthetic life may seem quite bold and daring. What distinguishes the aesthetic life from the ethical is that it is qualified by the outward rather than the inward aspects of experience. Thus the aesthetic man finds external circumstances decisive in the search for truth and meaning. Meaning can be found in the Alaskan wilderness, but not in the Washington suburbs; in the Arizona desert but not the Chicago inner-city; it can be found if you live on nuts and berries in the wild but not if you live on meat and potatoes cooked by your wife. The aesthete thinks that if he gets the external circumstances right, the inward apprehension of truth will follow. The external circumstances involved may include considerable personal risk, like living in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness or climbing a remote mountain or riding freight trains like a hobo. In fact, the aesthete generally supposes that the particular circumstances required to find transcendent meaning are rare and difficult to obtain. What makes such a life aesthetic in the Kierkegaardian sense is the decisive significance it gives to the particular, empirical circumstances of life, rather than the non-empirical, inward determination of the spirit that is independent of circumstances.

The connection between Kierkegaard’s meaning of aesthetic and our common meaning of the word is that the wine-taster and opera-lover also give decisive significance to empirical circumstances. A wine from a good year, chilled to just the right temperature, and served with the right food and atmosphere is not just good but sublime. The perfectly performed opera is not just an enjoyable experience but a window into transcendent meaning; in the experience of great opera the opera-lover believes he has a transcendent experience every bit as deep and authentic as Chris McCandless in his bus in Alaska. And just as the supertramp goes “on the road” looking for that one particular, radical experience through which he will break through to the other side, so the opera-lover searches for the one sublime opera through which he will find transcendent truth. Both the opera-lover and the supertramp believe the search for truth depends on the particulars of external circumstance; the one through the experience of dangerous adventures and the other through intellectual and sensory experience.

Next… the aesthetic life and the “herd” of humanity.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Homosexuality and the Church

Here is an interesting discussion (via The Whirlpool's Rim) concerning homosexuality and the Church. I won't say anything about Eve Tushnet's excellent contribution, but you should read it nonetheless.

What I would like to discuss is an argument deployed by Luke Timothy Johnson, an argument that is both common and that I have always found problematic. Johnson argues the pro-homosexuality side. The anti-homosexuality side often appeals to Scripture and tradition against homosexuality; Johnson's counter-argument attempts to undermine that appeal by showing that Christians have, historically, sometimes overruled Scripture and tradition for other reasons. Principal among those reasons is personal experience. The cases Johnson cites are the typical ones one hears:

Slavery: Common in the Old and New Testament worlds and not rejected by Jesus or Scripture; in fact, it can be argued that the Bible even endorses slavery. Yet now slavery is universally rejected by Christians. What made the difference? What people learned through their experience of slavery and their encounter with slaves. The humanity of slaves was undeniable and it became obvious that slavery was an affront to that humanity. So in the case of slavery, Christians trumped Scripture and tradition with personal experience.

Gentiles and the Mosaic Law: The New Testament Church struggled with the question of whether Gentile converts to Christianity must follow the Mosaic Law. When it became obvious that God was working among the Gentiles in a new and unprecedented way, the Church concluded that the Old Testament Mosaic Law did not apply to Gentiles the same way it did to Jews. It can similarly judge that the Old Testament proscriptions against homosexuality don't apply to people who obviously manifest God in their lives through homosexual union.

Old Testament punishments: Although authorized by the Old Testament, no one any longer stones to death psychics or adulterers. This is another case of the personal experience of the humanity of people overruling Scripture.

The point of the argument is clear: Since Christians have changed their understanding of slavery, the requirements of the Mosaic Law, and Old Testament punishments in light of deep personal experience, so our understanding of homosexuality and its permissibility can change in light of deep personal experience. This argument, however, ignores the direction that the changes have historically taken.

The changes are generally not in the direction of increased permissibility; they are in the direction of making things more strict rather than less. This follows from Christ's proclamation that He did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. More is demanded of the Christian, not less. The cases cited by Johnson show this:

Slavery: Old Testament and New Testament - permitted.
Developed understanding since then - not permitted.

Stoning for adultery: Old Testament - permitted.
Developed understanding - not permitted.

The stoning case always amazes me because everyone involved - the modern understanding, the Old Testament prophets, and Jesus Christ - are all against adultery. What is at issue is what is permissible as a punishment for adultery. As far as what is allowed as punishment, we are far more strict than they were in the Old Testament.

Mosaic Law for Gentiles: Old Testament - permitted but not required.
New Testament - permitted but not required.

This last case is really a case of no change. Gentiles were never required to observe the Mosaic Law. The question before the Apostles was whether Gentiles, in following Christ, would also be given the additional requirement of observing the Law like Jews - again, something never required of them before. The judgment of the Apostles was that such a new requirement was
not necessary.

So we see that the direction that change or development takes is never in the direction of increased moral permissiveness. As our appreciation for the humanity of others increases over time, the requirements for respecting that humanity (and our own) increase rather than decrease. I think there is something of an optical illusion happening here. What has really changed is our appreciation for the humanity of homosexuals, and how past persecution of homosexuals violated their integrity. So the treatment of homosexuals has come under stricter observation and regulation. It is not permissible to humiliate, harass or discriminate against them. But this doesn't mean that homosexuality is any more permissible than it was, anymore than adultery was more permissible because we stopped stoning adulterers. Authentic development always raises the bar for Christians, it never lowers it.

Into the Wild, Wisdom and Virtue

Perhaps the most significant philosophical casualty of the modern era is the disappearance of the concept of wisdom. The modern world began with doubt about the metaphysical basis of traditional wisdom, progressed to doubt about the very possibility of wisdom, and has now reached the point where it has even forgotten that there is a concept of wisdom. This is one of the more depressing aspects of the case of Chris McCandless from Into the Wild. Here was a highly intelligent, talented, passionate young man who graduated from Emory University with outstanding marks in a liberal arts curriculum, yet who apparently grew very little in wisdom through the process.

I am not talking about his penchant for radical living and taking chances. A radical lifestyle that calls into question “normal” and “safe” ways of living may be an expression of deep wisdom. Socrates, St. Francis, St. Thomas Aquinas and Kierkegaard all lived more or less radical lives. But they understood that such a lifestyle is truly “radical” only to the extent that one has understood and mastered oneself. Most people, in thrall to various passions and vices, need the restrictions and pressures of society to keep the bad side of their natures in check. Absent such pressures, such people become “free” only in the sense that their vices are given head. In places where the civic structure has broken down, it isn’t peace and universal brotherhood that breaks out but riots, looting and arson. Only the man who has attained a high degree of virtue is capable of stepping outside the structure of society without such a move turning self-indulgent.

All this was once part of the essence of wisdom, the wisdom taught at Plato’s Academy and the medieval universities. Students then were far more truly radical than they are now (living as beggars, for instance, just to be able to hear lectures at the University of Paris). But they were not subject to the superficial understanding now current that becoming radical is a simple matter of dropping out of society and going “on the road” as a vagrant. When a young man born into nobility in the Middle Ages decided to renounce his privileged life and live as a beggar, a man such as Thomas Aquinas, he didn’t merely give up his trust fund and hit the open road in an illusory “pure freedom.” Instead he took a vow of poverty in an order of mendicant friars, an order that would allow him to live as radically as he liked, but would also discipline him in his vices such that his freedom matured into true freedom.

This is particularly the case with the vice of pride, to which men of great passion and talent, like Chris McCandless, are particularly vulnerable. Seeing the lust, gluttony and envy that are common vices in mankind but seem to have been largely absent from himself, it was almost inevitable that McCandless would become subject to the vice of pride over the fact. He might have understood this about himself if he had attended the University of Paris in 1288 instead of Emory University in 1988. But the modern university is not about Socratic self-examination and growth in wisdom, but about instilling a self-righteous pride as a substitute for wisdom. I’m just fine, it’s the rest of the world that needs fixing.

McCandless finished college only out of duty to his family and couldn’t wait to hit the road on graduation. The result was entirely predictable. He renounced his old self by giving all his money away and severing completely his ties with his family, and began the search for transcendent truth as a “supertramp.” Of course, money or no money, he was still the same man with the same virtues and vices; his considerable virtues carried him for awhile but, unfortunately, the vice of pride eventually caught up to him in the Alaskan wilderness.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Into the Wild and Individualism

A Quiz: Which of the following is significantly different from the others?

Chris McCandless
Gene Rossellini
John Waterman
Carl McCunn
Everett Ruess
5th Century Irish Monks (papar)

All of these are mentioned by Jon Krakauer in Into the Wild. The book is, of course, about Chris McCandless. All the others are people who attempted more or less similar adventures to McCandless, striking out into the wilderness in search of transcendence through a primitive life in nature. Krakauer tries to understand McCandless through the example of the others.

Now what strikes me is that the last item on the list differs from the others in two significant ways. The first is that it is the only pre-modern entry; the second is that it is the only example that is a group of people rather than an individual. I think these two facts are related.

Krakauer provides the following summary of the monks from Fridtjof Nansen: "these remarkable voyages were... undertaken chiefly from the wish to find lonely places, where these anchorites might dwell in peace, undisturbed by the turmoil and temptations of the world." This interpretation confuses the means with the end. The end of the monk's life is service to God through prayer and contemplation; the simple and secluded life is a means to that end. The monks were under no illusion that primitive living was in itself a state of bliss; it may lead to bliss to the extent that the monk opens himself to the grace of God through it. Ultimately, however, whether the monk experiences grace is a matter of the will of God, not his own will.

It is in the modern, death-of-God world that the "state of nature" has been taken from a means to an end to an end in itself. In effect, the original theocentric orientation of the monastic life was turned egocentric. Now the individual, instead of experiencing transcendence through the grace of God, experiences it (or attempts to experience it) through the determination of his own will. The individual is assumed to be competent in his own nature to experience transcendent truth; it is only society and its inhibiting conventions that prevent him from finding that truth. So the individual, in a supreme act of willful self-denial, sheds all the burdens placed on him by society. Superficially he may look like the medieval monk in his self-denial, but really he is the polar opposite of the monk. His quest is in every way an individual quest, which is why all the modern examples cited by Krakauer are individual men. The medieval monk's vocation, even that of the hermit, is at heart a social vocation, for he seeks communion with a personal God in the context of the authority of the Body of Christ as manifested in the Roman Catholic Church. Thus the monks, even when seeking more isolated lands, seek as a community in boats rather than in their private canoes (as Chris McCandless did in Mexico at one point.)

Into the Wild and G.K. Chesterton II

Here I brought up the remarkable story of Chris McCandless, the young man who tramped off into the Alaskan wilderness and eventually died of starvation.

A response to that post might be that the modern "free spirit" can't submit to authority like St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis was, this thinking might go, tamed by the Catholic Church and thereby betrayed the truly radical nature of the quest for freedom. Submission to any authority is to submit to limits, and true freedom is not constrained by limits, particularly those set by others. St. Francis was radical for his time, but the modern quest for freedom has moved beyond him.

We can find an answer to this point, again from Chesterton, in Ch. 6 of Orthodoxy. The peculiar genius of Christianity (in its unified form prior to the Reformation) is that it did not settle for what Chesterton called pagan or natural compromises; in other words, the virtuous mean of Aristotle. The problem with Aristotle's mean is that it ultimately does not do justice to either of its extremes. Chesterton considers as an example the case of charity:

Charity is a paradox, like modesty and courage. Stated baldly, charity certainly means one of two things - pardoning unpardonable acts, or loving unlovable people. But if we ask ourselves (as we did in the case of pride) what a sensible pagan would feel about such a subject, we shall probably be beginning at the bottom of it. A sensible pagan would say that there were some people one could forgive, and some one couldn't: a slave who stole wine could be laughed at; a slave who betrayed his benefactor could be killed, and cursed even after he was killed. In so far as the act was pardonable, the man was pardonable. That again is rational, and even refreshing; but is is a dilution. It leaves no place for a pure horror of injustice, such as that which is a great beauty in the innocent. And it leaves no place for a mere tenderness for men as men, such as is the whole fascination of the charitable.

Now what Christianity manages to do is to balance the extremes without compromising either. Both are kept in their full force, but in a way that neither destroys the other. Chesterton puts it this way:

Christianity came in here as before. It came in startlingly with a sword, and clove one thing from anaother. It divided the crime from the criminal. The criminal we must forgive unto seventy times seven. The crime we must not forgive at all. It was not enough that slaves who stole wine inspired partly anger and partly kindness. We must be much more angry with theft than before, and yet much kinder to thieves than before. There was room for wrath and love to run wild. And the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.

"Good things running wild" is just the sort of thing that seems to describe Chris McCandless. He had the uncompromising moral sense of the radical, and sensed that the bourgeois life he saw around him as he grew up was a series of pagan compromises, which he found intolerable. He refused to have his burning passion for transcendence tamed (that is, killed) by society. All this is good. His answer was the only answer available to the natural mind; a complete repudiation of society and its compromises and the embrace of a radical lifestyle that pushed things to extremes. Alas, Aristotle cannot be refuted simply by ignoring him and attempting to reconcile extremes through the sheer force of personality, even a personality as powerful and talented as Chris McCandless's. The extremes do destroy each other as surely as do fire and ice.

The solution of Christianity, and in particular the Catholic Church, was to reconcile the extremes not in the individual personality, but in the corporate body of the Church. The aim of such reconciliation was not to tame the passionate personality, but to point his passions in the right direction such that they could run free yet not be in danger of destroying each other. Contrary to the modern impression, this does not limit the extreme personality, but allows him to travel to places he could not possibly find on his own. St. Francis was every bit as radical as Chris McCandless in his pursuit of living on as little as possible; the difference is that Chris did it for two years and St. Francis did it for thirty. Again, Chesteron puts it better than I can:

St. Francis, in praising all good, could be a more shouting optimist than Walt Whitman. St. Jerome, in denouncing all evil, could paint the world blacker than Schopenhauer. Both passions were free because both were kept in their place. The optimist could pour out all the praise he liked on the gay music of the march, the golden trumpets, and the purple banners going into battle. But he must not call the fight needless. The pssimist might draw as darkly as he chose the sickening marches or the sanguine wounds. But he must not call the fight hopeless. So tis was with all the other moral problems, with pride, with protest, and with compassion. By defining its main doctrine, the Chruch not only kept seemingly inconsistent things side by side, but, what was more, allowed them to break out in a sort of artistic violence otherwise possible only to anarchists. Meekness grew more dramatic than madness. Historic Christianity rose into a high and strange coup de theatre of morality - things that are to virtue what the crimes of Nero are to vice. The spirit of indignation and of charity took terrible and attractive forms, ranging from that monkish fierceness that scourged like a dog the first and greatest of the Plantangenets, to the sublime pity of St. Catherine, who, in the official shambles, kissed the bloody head of the criminal.

Into the Wild and G.K. Chesterton

I just finished reading Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, a book that was recently made into a film (I haven't seen the film). For those who don't know, the book is about the life and death of Chris McCandless, a young man who set out to live on his own in the Alaskan wilderness and, after a few months, starved to death.

There is a lot in the book that stimulates philosophical reflection, for McCandless was not your typical foolish youth attempting a misguided communion with nature. He was highly intelligent, talented, well-educated (he graduated from Emory University), and would likely have survived his time in the Alaskan wilderness but for a couple of unfortunate circumstances. In fact, rather than a nutcase, the figure he brings to mind is St. Francis of Assisi.

In this post, I would like to consider Chris McCandless in the light of G.K. Chesterton. Specifically, the following passage from Ch. 3 of Orthodoxy:

The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices, are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone man. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.

The phrases "wasted virtues" and "virtues gone mad" seem apt with respect to Chris McCandless. This was a kid of extraordinary courage, resourcefulness, self-discipline, intelligence and passion. He was a physical stud, musically talented, and generally charmed whomever he met. A lot like St. Francis. The crucial difference between St. Francis and Chris McCandless, however, was that St. Francis's extraordinary life was theocentric rather than egocentric. By that I mean that the radical lifestyle of St. Francis had its origin in the imitation of Christ, rather than in a self-conceived program of spiritual transcendence. The difference this makes is all the difference in the world, for it is the difference between humility and pride.

Because St. Francis was imitating Christ, and Christ is one who submits to authority, St. Francis himself submitted to the authority of the Church. This had the effect of giving a structural foundation to Francis's life, a structure that prevented his passionate virtues from turning in on themselves and destroying him. The Church has also always made clear that a life of self-denial, no matter how radical, is never an end in itself. Nor is it really even a means by itself. The point of self-denial is to remove those things that stand between us and God. Now, even if we are successful at removing them, we have no guarantee that communion with God will follow. That is up to the will of God, and so patience is a virtue counseled by the Church even to natures as wild and impulsive as St. Francis.

Chris McCandless had no such direction or foundation, and so his considerable virtues eventually pulled him in directions that destroyed him. Since he did not understand the true point of radical self-denial, McCandless made the natural mistake of thinking that such measures, by themselves, could lead to transcendence. But such measures are ultimately empty without the grace of God. The consequence is that the seeker is led to ever more radical and dangerous modes of self-denial, with the thought that just a little bit more is all that is needed for the breakthrough. Eventually, either the seeker realizes it won't work or he is tempted to potentially fatal excesses. The latter seems to have happened when McCandless tramped off into the Alaskan outback without a decent map, compass, radio and only a ten-pound bag of rice to eat.