Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Against the So-Called Radicals, or, Nature, Grace and Gastropods

The Alpinist, to Samuel Matthew D
(and to the Magus of the North, who will undoubtedly be eavesdropping)
30 May 1909

Most Excellent Sir,

First let me commend and thank you for the fine job of repair you have recently completed on the Crucis Glass.  The Magus has raised your praises, and already has begun sending me daguerreotypes of his and the Ecclesiast's work on Steam and Water respectively.  We are undoubtedly in your debt.

I must also offer my sincere apologies for the tardiness of my reply to your most excellent inquiry regarding the curious case of the signs in the steam.  I have found myself quite pre-occupied in the contemplation of a most fascinating specimen, culled from the peaks of the Rocky Mountains of the American West.  As you may recall, one Arthur Lakes (an Oxford man, and fellow man of the cloth to boot!) discovered a rich vein of fossils some decades past, resulting in the infamous "Bone Wars."  Wishing to avoid such bellicose engagements, I ventured higher into the mountains, close to where Tesla conducted his experiments too long ago.

Incidentally, the questions troubling you were not far from my own ponderings: what to make of the strange signs that appear, not only in Steam or Water, but, in fact, strewn across the strata of the ages, and embedded in the very Earth of the Creation itself?  What do they signify, particularly for persons of faith in this so-called age of reason and science?

If I digress, it is in the way of responding to your inquiry.  I have enclosed a photograph of the aforementioned specimen, a limestone sheet of the nautilus shells of some ancient gastropods.  That such a marvel should be found, not in its native ocean depths, but several thousand feet in the sky, practically offered up by the peaks as if in offering upon the doorstep of heaven, is itself enough to challenge the biblical faith of any strict adherent of the scriptures.  Count yourself lucky that they are yet still a mystery to you.

But what holds my imagination (and, in honest confession, my devotion) fast, is the sheer symmetry of the shells - what appears to be an entirely natural occurrence of that ancient Pythagorean fascination, the golden mean.  Held next to the image of the signs you deciphered in the steam, I am struck at how, whether in Steam or in Rock, in Water or in the very etchings of world history itself, the patterns declare themselves.  What is striking, here, is that no Crucis Glass is needed to at least begin marveling at the ostensible prevalence of the ratio that inspired Dante, Davinci, Bach - indeed, all those and more who deigned to create from the very image of the creator sealed into their hearts.

Now, from your letter, I deduce you are not a trained theologian, and so shall not try to corrupt your innocence with much debate.  I must confess, I hope you will share this correspondence with the Magus, and so write this partly in engagement with him as well.  But what I should like to say to you - from out the fruits of my contemplation - is this.  The longer you pursue the questions inspired by the wonder you have felt at the signs in the steam, the more likely it is you will come upon certain elements deeming themselves to be radical, but who in fact, are threatening the very sanity of the church and the world.  And you must resist them at all costs.

Now, I confess it is bad blood to prematurely denounce a colleague.  But I must reiterate: as enticing as their radical theology may seem, be weary.  What is this radicality?  It is nothing less than the severance of nature from grace, in the name of revelation, but ultimately, in well-intentioned but misguided reaction to the very conundrums you and I are facing!  In an attempt to square such circles as trilobites on mountain tops and unsolvable puzzles in the elements, such self-described "dialectical" theologians are drawing lines.  In the hopes of protecting the authority of God's authoritative word, they will co-opt Herr Doktor Luther, the venerable Calvin, even our own great light, Herr Pastor Nietzsche.  And they will sound convincing.  One of them is Pastor Nietzsche's greatest disciple, one Karl Barth.  A great man, a powerful prophet - but, I fear, misguided in his appreciation of Kierkegaard and Schleiermacher.

My brother, what you must learn to see is what the great Grundtvig tried to show, most famously in his simple maxim, "first human, then Christian."  Or, as the great English poet of the past century, Gerard Manley Hopkins, wrote, "the world is charged with the grandeur of God!"  I will concede before anyone else, and most readily, that without the key provided by the Cross of Jesus, the ultimate meaning and mystery of the book of creation remains as a locked door, an indecipherable code.  We may discover signs and symmetries, traces and treasures, but will never understand them in their entirety, as the novels of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky make little sense unless considered in the fullness of their authors' intentions.

That being said, like a great novel or poem, this creation is so much more mysterious, more spectral, less given to dialectics, then our radical friends would have us believe.  The charge of the grandeur is often too much, too dangerous, too untamable, for those who have been burned too many times by lesser minds dabbling in science but without faith.  But beyond simplistic reductions, nature points beyond itself, points to the charge it carries.  Simple contemplation reveals it to be - dare I say - graced nature?

The Magus may attribute such thoughts as border on panentheism to the affinity I share with Pastor Nietzsche for the Americans Emerson and Thoreau and their transcendentalist unitarian ilk.  Mayhaps.  Even so, I implore you, contemplate the signs.  As Herr Grundtvig dug into the strata of the great tradition of the Church, all the way back to the great minds of the Earliest Church, to Justin Martyr and St. Iranaeus, availing himself of the treasures of their wisdom, so I implore you, look for the deeper magic in creation.  Justin spoke of a "spermmatikos logos," a kind of signature of the Creator's Wisdom's loving touch upon all aspects of creation.  Perhaps, despite contemporary prejudices (Harnack and his epigones be damned!), those ancients understood more than we with our daguerreotypes, our scientific and philosophic instruments, and our arrogances.

And in closing, I implore you: read the Scriptures.  The Magus will be a far greater asset in this than myself, and I have no qualms admitting it.  Do not read them as the young Augustine, searching for manuals of virtue or codes to secret wisdom.  Read them, rather, as Augustine under Ambrose, or, as our British friends did that marvelous Rosetta Stone: as a photograph of eternity, captured in temporality, holding the human and the divine in such close concert that, as through a pair of spectacles, one might look through them to see the eternal dimensions of all history and all human wonderings.  They are, in a sense, a kind of Crucis Glass.  Herr Barth, for all his wild rantings, has taught me this much.

Remember: "human first, then Christian."  Remember: "the world is charged with God's grandeur."  Remember: this created world, for all its conundrums, is the Spirit's second book of revelation.  If our theologians and our pastors and our scientists could come to some manner of balance on this issue, this relationship of nature and grace, much insanity will be prevented, and much wonder - much of what the Magus calls "Geist" - will be liberated back into the world.  Perhaps it is not, as the materialists claim, a half-made world.  Perhaps it is simply our imaginations, which we have only allowed to half-grow.  Certainly, we must not make the same mistake with our theologies.

I have said too much for a man who claims the title of contemplative.  I met a fellow Alpinist back in Europe before my departure, a young Austrian - perhaps the most brilliant fellow I've ever had the honor to become acquainted with, goes by the name Ludwig Wittgenstein - who was on his way north to the fjords.  Following a similar conversation, he looked at me with piercing eyes and said, "you have it all wrong.  Perhaps it is this.  That of which we cannot speak, we must consign to silence."  In final violation of such advice, I say, once more: gaze upon the signs.  Receive the story of the scriptures.  And you will find, without your intending, that the mysteries will find you.  

The Alpinist

1 comment:

  1. Be a Christian in accordance with your humanity. This is another way I have heard Grundtvig say the same thing in a slightly different fashion I believe to be in keeping with your letter here.