St. Athanasius Subversive Orthodoxy

The Blessed Trinity as the Basis of a New World Order

from Jesus the Heretic, by Conrad Noel. London, Religious Book Club, 1939.

"And in this Trinity none is afore, or after other: none is greater, or less than another." -- Quicunque Vult.

"Without any difference or inequality." -- Preface for Trinity Sunday.

The opening of the Athanasian hymn is, to this generation, startling. Whosoever wills to be safe or whole must thus think of the Trinity; wholeness, then, depends not so much on feeling as on thought; every man or woman "must think." Safety does not depend on action, for action must arise out of right thinking. Safety does not depend on emotion, for essential as is true emotion, emotionalism may be your ruin. Every one must use his mind according to the degree of intelligence which God has given him; if the mind is never used it will become atrophied. "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind." (Matthew xxii, 37)

When the followers of St. Athanasius declare that the doctrine of the Trinity is incomprehensible, they do not mean that we are not to think it out and understand it so far as may be, but that in the last analysis God is beyond all human understanding; the Infinite is beyond the intelligence of the finite.

Let us then consider the Blessed Trinity as the source of our own personal lives and of the life of the world. Each one of us is a trinity in unity -- body, mind, and spirit: the disunity between these is not according to the original intention of the Triune God. The world has in it plenty of variety, but the variety is not always healthy, is often antagonistic and discordant, because it is not a variety in unity, and does not yet express the "Three in One and One in Three." It cannot be said of the world, as at present constituted, that it contains no differences or inequalities, or that within it "none is afore or after other; none is greater or less than another." We look forward to a world of infinite variety in harmony, of living unity, not of dead uniformity; if man is to create so delightful a world, he "must thus think of the Trinity," for it is the will of the Triune God to inspire men to renew the world in such a way as to make it the perfect expression of His own Being.

This was understood by the Catholic Church of the early ages when its thinkers were developing the doctrine of the Godhead, borrowing from non-Christian sources, but weaving all that they borrowed into a distinctive Christian theology. It was also understood, or, at least, instinctively treasured by the workers, the common people of the market place, craftsmen, porters, tanners, farmers, fishermen, stevedores, and the like; the philosophers thought it out, while the people fought it out, because they dimly perceived that the imperial world, dear to the Arian opponents, who thought of God as an Emperor Dictator in the sky, was crushing the life out of them, while the Catholic belief in the Triune God, put into action, would give them a world in which there would be no artificial differences or inequalities.

This doctrine of the Trinity being essential to a wholesome and communal life, it is not surprising that in a later age the practical man-of-affairs, the great saint and statesman, Thomas of Canterbury, was both its champion and the champion of the people. It was he who introduced the Feast of the Blessed Trinity into England as a festival equal in rank to that of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. . .

[More recent studies linking the Triune nature of God to the pursuit of a just society include Leonardo Boff's Trinity and Society (1988) and Geevarghese Mar Osthathios' Theology of a Classless Society (1980), both published by Orbis Books, Maryknoll, N.Y. -- Ted M.]


Taking manhood into God

Kenneth Leech. London, The Times, January 15, 1982.

The heart of Christian faith is the truth that God became man, took human flesh. If that doctrine of the Incarnation is removed, the entire Christian edifice collapses. Incarnational belief is basic to a healthy Christian theology, spirituality and social action.

Yet so offensive is this crude materialistic doctrine, in Betjeman's words,

That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in bread and wine,
that every era experiences attempts to evade its full consequences. So Christianity comes to be seen as a non-historical ideology, a form of moral goodness unrelated to historical fact, or a type of spiritual experience to which the actual non-existence of the human Jesus would be only marginally relevant. Much of the current stress on inner experience seems to by-pass history altogether.

While evangelical Christians have been more insistent on the importance of Gospel truth, there are quasi-evangelical forms of this watering down of the Incarnation. In these words Jesus becomes simply "my friend", my personal Saviour; the whole notion of taking humanity into God through the Word made flesh disappears.

However, today we are seeing not only the evasion of Incarnation but its deliberate denial. It is a "myth", it is a subjective experience, a distortion of the primitive faith by Hellenism. Much current writing on this and related aspects of doctrine seems to be concerned to make Christianity credible to "modern man".

The idea that the Incarnation as it stands is incredible leads some to argue for a "remaking" or "rewriting" of this fundamental doctrine. So "modern man" may no longer be offended and may be brought, through the methods of gentle refinement, to believe. Thus, armed with his newly acquired weapons of faith, he will face the onslaughts of secularism and atheism.

Unfortunately, such a process of remaking looks rather different from the battlefield that it did in the laboratory. For in fact the process is a kind of theological striptease. To be armed with these revisionist beliefs is actually worse than having no armour at all. For in warfare with evil forces, we need all the resources we can have.

Gospel truth is not some obscure set of concepts which are difficult to swallow and which therefore need to be diluted; Gospel truth is more like high explosive or highly toxic drugs. Take away the central truth and there is no power, no potency. The atheist is in a healthier state, for he knows what he has rejected or abandoned.

It is the power and toxicity of the doctrine of the Incarnation which has, through the centuries, been the driving and transforming force in Christian discipleship and Christian resistance. It is not without significance that, at the time of Hitler's rise to power, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was writing his book on Christology in which he defended the doctrine of the Incarnation against those who, in the name of liberalism, wished to deny its truth. Out of that book the Confessing Church was to draw much of its theological ammunition in the conflict with Nazism.

The doctrine asserts three scandalous claims which are no less scandalous now than they were in the early centuries. First, it asserts that God took flesh, that the Eternal became small.

O wonder of wonders which none can unfold!
The Ancient of Days is an hour or two old,
The Maker of all things is made of the earth,
Man is worshipped by angels, and God comes to birth.
Everything in Christian faith and life hinges on the taking flesh of the Word of God. As Tertullian put it, caro salutis est cardo, the flesh is the hinge of salvation. Reject the flesh of Christ as the fount of salvation and all spiritual life, and one has already begun the move away from Christian orthodoxy.

Second, it asserts that the purpose of this taking flesh by the Word of God was, in the magnificent words of the Athanasian Creed, the "taking of manhood into God". The eastern church dares to use the term theosis, deification. The Incarnation is the source of a true and materially based Christian mysticism, not the flight of the alone to the alone, but the raising of human nature to share the divine life through the materialism of the Incarnation.

Third, it asserts that the word was God, not a semi-divine being, not a superman, not an inferior, but True God from True God. There is equality within the Godhead. It was the principle of equality for which the early fathers fought in their battles with the heretics, and it is the same battle which orthodox Christians are fighting today. For if the life of God is a life characterized by equality and sharing, then human beings made in that image and raised into that life by the Incarnation, are called to a similar life. That is why orthodox Christianity must lead in an egalitarian direction.

Much of what is mistaken for Christian orthodoxy is in fact deeply heretical, owing more to the Emperor Constantine than to the Council of Chalcedon. Much so-called theism is simple monotheism rather than the faith of the Triune God in whose social life we share. Even a "belief" in the Incarnate Christ can be a purely conceptual affair, and thereby miss the point.

For the Incarnation is more than a belief, it is a principle of life and of transformation. The principle that salvation and all spirituality comes through the flesh and through matter lie at the heart of the entire Christian understanding.

Spirituality which is rooted in the Incarnation can never be world-denying or private. Nor can it be reduced to the "imitation of Christ". Rather it is a call to be transformed into the divine life.

For, in the words of St. John of the Cross: "There would not be a true and total transformation if the soul were not transformed in the Three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity in an open and manifest degree." The Incarnation is more than a doctrine; it is a call to glory.


The World's Resistance to the Incarnation

from Manhood into God, by Frederic Hastings Smyth. New York, Roundtable Pr., 1940.

The history of the theological controversies within the Church, and between the theologians of the Church and her enemies, may sometimes make dreary reading for a modern enquirer. But although these controversies have often been bitter to the point of violence, and have also often seemed to be concerned with relatively trivial matters, nevertheless they have served to hammer the intellectual expression of the verities of the Catholic Faith into an exact form. Indeed, it is chiefly to serve the purpose of combating and eliminating theological heresy that the Catholic Creeds have been drawn up. These Creeds. . . are symbolic expressions of the Faith, rather than exhaustive definitions or theological treatises concerning the truths for which they stand. The Church in her most vigorous days has usually not thought it necessary to define a point of doctrine until she found that some particular element of her Truth was in danger of being lost or denied. Therefore, if the theological controversies of the Church be regarded in this light, they assume a new interest. They have been the battles in which the Church has safegarded the true potentialities of the Incarnation against those who sought to circumvent them. . .

We are not here interested in a detailed history of Catholic Doctrine. We need only cite a few illustrations for our contention that heresy, and not orthodoxy, is dangerously reactionary. . .

One of the earliest heresies to arise to trouble the Catholic Faith was that of Gnosticism. Strictly speaking, it may be incorrect to term Gnosticism a heresy, because the system of thought called by that name did not originate in a theological attack upon the Christian religion. It was, in fact, already kind of religion with a history of its own, properly belonging to the group of mystery religions which were fairly numerous in the ancient world. It did, however, possess a philosophy peculiar to itself and a certain well-defined view of God and His creation. Furthermore, many people already holding these views embraced Christianity and, giving to the latter a particular interpretation, became "Christian Gnostics." When this happened, Gnosticism developed a dangerous heresy within the Church, because one of the major tenets of this other religion was the belief that the material world was essentially evil in itself, and therefore irredeemable. So evil, indeed, did matter seem to the Gnostics, that they could not bear to think of the God whom they worshipped as deigning to contaminate Himself with it, even at its first creation. Therefore, the creation of the universe was assigned by them to a lesser deity, a demiurge, a being sufficiently removed from God to secure His remote and untainted purity.

It can easily be seen that under such a view of the world and of God, it would be impossible to bring the two together. Matter, being essentially evil, would not be open to the re-creative attack of One who was, in Gnostic thought, not even permitted to participate directly in the first creation. To Gnostics the Incarnation was impossible. Nevertheless, this difficulty could be resolved by viewing Jesus Christ as God, appearing in this world as a shade or spirit, pretending to be a man but, in reality, not suffering Himself to be polluted by becoming involved in material flesh, or the contingencies of true human life. On this view, the Incarnation would give place to a kind of anthropomorphic theophany. The function of this would be to arouse and inspire men, to lead them out of this world of irredeemable evil into union with God. At this point Gnosticism thought it had a common ground with Christianity. Both were religions of "salvation" or "redemption". However, to Gnosticism redemption necessarily meant extrication from the flesh, while Christian redemption, rightly understood, means union of complete human nature, including ultimately the flesh itself, with God. It is fairly obvious, therefore, that a Gnostic Christianity would lack all of the far-reaching social implications of the Incarnation of Catholicism.

The Catholic doctrine prevailed, and Gnosticism as a sect disappeared. It is worth pointing out that its dualistic philosophy, which considers the material world a hindrance to all approach to God, essentially evil not merely because of its fallen disorder but by its very nature, has remained to plague the Church in succeeding ages. . . Wherever such ideas show themselves, they are potential enemies of the Incarnation. People who hold such views forget that "the Son of Man is come eating and drinking," that He was no disembodied spirit, but clothed Himself in the matter of the world. . .

Another one of the most famous attacks upon the Incarnation came from a different direction. This attack originated about the year 318 and began with the teachings of a certain priest in the City of Alexandria named Arius. It is significant that this man Arius was as well known for his personal piety as for his suave and polished manners. He was of grave demeanor and had the look of an ascetic, which, indeed, no doubt he was. He was the prominent Pastor of the Parish of Baucalis, a suburb of Alexandria and seems to have been a great favorite with a group of fashionable unmarried ladies who supported generously his point of view. The whole picture looks astonishingly like that to be found in many a wealthy and respectable suburban parish of the Church of our own day. It is very probable that Arius was, as we would now say, a priest popular with the upper middle, possibly with the aristocratic, classes. He moved among the kind of people who were notoriously anxious to find a comfortable religious sanction for those habitual social and economic patterns in which they have their own well-being and security. With the temperament typical of many so-called liberals of his class in all ages, he disliked extremes. He sought a compromise amidst the uncomfortable difficulties which the Incarnation presented to him. Arius rejected the idea that a Being who could actually be identified in some sense with the One God, could at the same time clothe himself with flesh. Thus, he neatly got rid of the Incarnation by holding God the Creator aloof from His fallen creation. He also wished to avoid the embarrassment of asserting that the Man Jesus in no way partook of a special Divinity in his own right, different from the rest of mankind. . . Arius contended that God the Son, although prior to the world, was a created, and therefore, lesser deity. Holy Trinity -- Ethiopian IconIt is clear that such a being might reveal God to men and act as the greatest of the Prophets. But the disorder of the world cannot be re-created through the mediation of a being who is himself a part, however exalted, of creation itself. It can be re-created only through the Incarnation of a Person who is one with the Godhead, standing Himself prior to all things, not a creature, but the original Creator of that Order which He must restore, since it is now fallen, by emerging anew within it, in order to take its disarray once more into His own ordered Self.

Contemporary with Arius there were authoritative theologians and leaders in the Church who saw the implications of his teachings. A spirited controversy developed. The Emperor Constantine became alarmed, not so much because he understood the theoretical importance of the issue, but because he was already looking to the Church organization as a useful, unifying political influence within a disintegrating empire. He caused a General Council of the Church to be called together at Nicea in the year 325 to decide the matter. This so-called First Oecumenical Council of the Catholic Church decided against the teaching of Arius and, defending itself against the heresy, put into carefully defined philosophical words the hitherto undefined Orthodox Faith of the Church. From this Council comes our Nicene Creed, in which the true principle of the Incarnation is guarded forever by asserting that the Person of God Incarnate is of the "same substance" with the Father, rather than "of like or similar substance," which would have satisfied Arius.

The Nicene theology uses the Greek word "homoousion" to express the idea of "one substance." The opposing word, "of like substance" can be formed by inserting the letter iota in its midst, giving "homoiousion." Hence the historian Gibbon's sarcastic comment that Christendom was once split into warring camps over a single letter. It can perhaps be seen, from the foregoing discussion, that this same little letter might, when the time comes, make all the difference between a potential social revolution and the stubborn maintenance of an unjust status quo. For this letter would make all the difference between a religion which would merely extricate men from disorder without changing the world, and one which would perfect the world through the Incarnation and thus also perfect men together with it. Thus, even in this early controversy, as so often today, many men popularly considered advanced and liberal thinkers of the time, held ideas which would logically have proved useful to reaction.

Although Constantine himself at first enforced the orthodox decision of the Council which he had sponsored, nevertheless, when he came to a clearer understanding of that decision, he once more sided with the Arians. He persecuted the great Bishop Athanasius, the outstanding champion of the orthodox Nicene Creed, and when the Emperor was baptized just before he died, he called in an Arian Bishop to give him the Sacrament. This behavior on Constantine's part cannot be considered an accident. It was a matter of policy; for the secular power was thus trying to ally itself with a denial of the Incarnation, knowing, as if by instinct, that the latter truth was dangerous to the powers of this disordered world.

[I suspect that Arius was genuinely surprised at all the fuss. Like many a popular rector of a well-off parish, he was merely trying to explain Christianity in a way that would make sense to the country-club set among whom he habitually moved. They saw the world as a pyramid, and so did he. They saw the poor, the slave, the disreputable, the weak, the hungry, the forsaken, on the broad-based bottom, and themselves a good distance up where their "natural talents" had placed them. No doubt they sincerely hoped that something would "trickle down" to those below, but if it didn't, it couldn't be helped. Above them were ranged the ever-more-rarified reaches of the aristocracy, government officials, and then the Emperor himself, above whom were only choirs of angels, demiurges, and finally God, dwelling alone in majestic, but isolated splendor. If God wanted to get something done, presumably God would have to go through the Emperor. It was on this whole scheme of things that Athanasius and his supporters blew the whistle. God is not way up there, somewhere above the Emperor, but right down here, at the base of the pyramid, Incarnate in the poor, the slave, the disreputable, the weak, the hungry, the forsaken. And it is not an Incarnation that leaves us where we are -- it is not a conversion of the Godhead into flesh -- but the taking of humanity into God, lifting us up, raising us all to an absoulte equality at the very top of the heap -- no matter how disruptive this might be to the stability of the Emperor's precious social order. No wonder, then as now, "the gummint don't like it" and prefers to encourage belief in God as a sort of glorified spy satellite, "watching us, (thankfully) from a distance." -- Ted M.]


Socialism's Need of the Christian Philosophy

from "Christian Socialism in England in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century" by Gilbert Clive Binyon, in Christianity and the Social Revolution, edited by John Lewis, Karl Polyani, Donald K. Kitchin. London, Victor Gollancz, 1935.

Someone who was lecturing on the history of the Christian Socialist Movement in this country remarked that "Christian Socialism reached the bishops, but it never reached the working man." In discussion, it was objected that this was the exact opposite if the truth.

The lecturer was referring to the Christian Socialism initiated by Maurice, and to Bishop Westcott and Bishop Gore; and his statement was quite correct; the objector had in mind the Socialism, assumed to be Christian and therefore to be Christian Socialism, of Keir Hardie and the Independent Labour Party; and it is, of course, quite true that it reached the working man but not the bishops.

The former type of Christian Socialism may have politics and economics in its purview, but it is primarily religio-moral; the latter may be religious, but it is primarily ethico-political. The two types may, of course, fuse into one; but it is worth while to emphasise the distinction. Anyone who wishes to trace the history of, or to estimate "Christian Socialism" should first be clear as to whether he is primarily interested in the Workers' Movement and in the reform or revolutionising of society at large, and desirous of finding out what the Churches have done about it (and then get clear as to whether he wants to find this out in order to show up the Churches -- in which case his hyper-Christian criticism easily shades off into anti-Christian sentiments -- or in order to welcome anything they may have done), or whether, alternatively, he is primarily interested in the Church's teaching, and, while admitting its faults in past and present, is anxious that Christianity should be truly taught. One who is devoted to the Social Revolution may not unnaturally think well or ill of Christians in proportion as they share his devotion, without reference to their theology; while one who is interested first in Christian Faith and Morals may be inclined to do less than justice to the Christian spirit and self-sacrificing labours of any Socialists whose expressed opinions about religion seem somewhat vague or heretical. The little incident described in the first paragraph shows that it is well to know just what one is talking about; otherwise there may be unnecessary irritation and misplaced criticism.

From the time of Robert Owen, with his "New Moral World," the British Labour and Socialist Movement has had a moral base. But that is not necessarily the same thing as a Christian ethic; and, where Socialism has definitely a moral base, we are in the presence, rather, of the ethic of Natural or Rational Religion -- of what used to be called "The Law of Nature," which was recognised by the Church for at least sixteen centuries as man's natural righteousness.

In so far as the British Labour Movement has been religious, it has been so, almost without exception, according to the religion of Liberal Protestantism, which very easily blends with, and gives a Christian colouring to, the ethic of Natural Religion. . .

To this type of Christian thought, those who are today both Catholic-minded and socially-minded are much indebted (though they do not always think so) for creating, by its influence on more orthodox forms of thought, the standpoint which they now occupy. At its best. . . it was a valuable corrective of the errors of unsocial Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant. It linked Christianity with the best secular aspiration of the time; it emphasized the influence of environment, and brought in a certain determanist element which is a healthy antitode to a naive and childish Utopianism; it helped restore to the Church the prophetic office; it established a forward-looking outlook, concerned with the future of man; it had an evolutionary progressive outlook, which made possible the idea of changes in the forms of truth and righteousness.

Any account of Christian Socialism ought to recognise this; and any history of the movement ought to do full justice to the work of the ex-local-preacher Labour leaders, and numberless men of all denominations who have been active in the movement.

The purpose of this essay, however, is not to deal with the history of Socialism and see how Christians have come into it, but rather to sketch and comment on the history, during the past one hundred and thirty years, of the Social Teaching of the Church.

From this point of view, however fully and sincerely one may recognize the services rendered by religious men in the Labour Movement, however humbly one may admire the character of these men and acknowledge the faults of organised religion, one cannot help being aware that the very qualities of this type of religion, which have had such valuable results when they have been assimilated by historical, institutional Christianity, have had unfortunate results when Christianity has valued neither its historic heritage nor its traditional institutions.

For this type of religion has so emphasized Original Righteousness that it has forgotten the Fall and Sin and Forgiveness; it has so emphasized the "building of Jerusalem" by human ethical effort that it has forgotten Redemption and the down-coming of the New Jerusalem from Heaven. It has so assimilated the ideas of evolution and progress that it has found Judgment to Come unintelligible; it has so emphasized Divine Immanence that it has approached Pantheism. This theological weakness carries with it an ethical weakness. Its disregard of the Transcendent creates too great dependence on the spirit of revolt against hardship and oppression, on the comradeship of others, or on that kind of hope which requires for its existence the prospect of success. And thus, when a boom in capitalist industry has brought prosperity to the workers, or when election has brought promotion, this religion is liable to fade. Faced by heavy resistance to their programme, those who profess this creed may "put gradual progress into reverse gear" -- to use Mr. John Strachey's expression -- or may even come to seek the glittering prizes which capitalism offers but does not often award; if their religion does not wilt, it is likely -- in some cases -- to further its inherent monism [and sink down into] Pantheism or worse.

What is Pantheism? It may mean "All is God"; in that case, finding God everywhere, it ends by finding Him nowhere . . . or it may mean "God is All"; in that case, finding no real existence, even of a dependent kind, in anything, it slides down into denial of the world. . . [Neither pole] can afford [a] basis for any rational or moral social order; and if any social theory is associated with this Monism that can only be due to the unacknowledged presence of a remnant of ethic derived from elsewhere. . .

That does not mean, of course, that this type of thought, in spite of its ultimate tendencies, may not now, as in the past, have valuable contributions to make to the full understanding of Christian faith and practice . . . but, when all due acknowledgments have been made, it remains true that the ethic of the Law of Nature can only remain secure when it is taken up into the Historic Faith, with its doctrines of Divine Transcendence as well as Immanence, of Creation, the Fall, Incarnation and Redemption, and the Hope of the World (or Age) to Come.


Mysticism and Social Passion

from The Privilege of Age, by Vida Dutton Scudder. New York, E. P. Dutton, 1939.

Mysticism is a word to conjure with nowadays. The eighteenth century spoke it with a sneer, the nineteenth century apologetically; the twentieth revives it. A large and popular literature produced by minds as disparate as Dean Inge, Evelyn Underhill, and Rufus Jones, gathers around interpretation of the historical mystics: organizations many and sometimes weird study Rosicrucianism, Yogi practice, strange Oriental cults. College students clamor to write themes on mysticism, and the Christian Churches have their own groups earnestly seeking a special initiation. . .

The word with all it implies may defy analysis and evade definition; but it stands for an actuality to which men have clung from the dawn of time; which the West has yearned for, the East has understood, which has drawn its votaries even in the most unpromising periods -- were not Swedenborg and Blake eighteenth century men? -- and about which men are as wistful today as ever. It connotes the imperative desire to rise, or rather to penetrate, to a plane where sense and matter cease -- the insistent feeling that in the aspect of things there is more than meets the eye. As William Blake says:

"For double the vision my eyes do see,
For a double vision is always with me.
With my inward eye, 'tis an Old Man grey,
With my outward, a Thistle across my way."
All symbolisms, whether wildly fantastic or startlingly illuminative, witness to the inveterate instinct. The sudden invasions to which, like Browning's Caponsacchi, a man lies passive -- the causeless ecstasies that read in "the silent faces" of the clouds "unutterable love," the rising tide of awe and thanksgiving that submerges even a modern man in those rare hours when he can plunge into solitude (only some modern folk never know solitude except when they are asleep!) -- these things all belong to that drama of the interior life in which alone some men in every age persist in finding reality behind the shifting phantasm of the world. . .

Two things covering the relation of mysticism to other approaches to truth are rather striking. One is the extraordinary reconciliation with science which is going on at the present minute. Insofar as the mystic mood involves a certain awed amaze, thinking persons must always, one would suppose, have been inspired by that mood in in the presence of scientific discoveries. But fifty years ago and and less, the increasing knowledge of nature and her laws was thought by many not wholly stupid people to be playing into the hands of materialists. About face! Today, the more alertly minds press toward the mystery of the universe, the less material that mystery seems to be. "Physical theories do not reach ultimate realities," says Eddington: "We fashion them in our own image as symbols. And the frank recognition that physical science is concerned with a world of shadows, is one of the most significant of recent advances." Thus science now appears as ally-in-chief of the mystic, and even time and space at its bidding gyrate and interlock in dizzy manner while substance disappers. The old antagonism is at an end. But from another quarter comes an antagonism more subtle and perhaps more deadly. There is mutual distrust -- not universal, yet very prevalent -- between the mystic and the social reformer. Many people intensely solicitous for human welfare here and now, men filled with passion for justice and brotherhood, who want to get matters better arranged on the place of visible experience, so that small children shall not work in factories and miners shall not be unemployed, have no use at all for mysticism. Its other-worldliness and what they call its self-centredness are repellent to them.

There is much to be said on their side, and if I had to choose between mystic and reformer, I would throw in my lot with the latter. How deny, if we look at history, that the mystical temper has led again and again to hard or dreamy apathy toward human suffering? The affairs of our brief sojourn in the flesh seem unimportant to it. Sometimes we note the gentle indifference of the East -- full of compassionate tenderness, reluctant to take even animal life, but devoid of any positive impulse to save men by combatting, for instance, caste systems, acquiescent in the static misery of whole human strata. Again, we observe the frequent spiritual egotism of the mediaeval cloister where men and women sometimes whipped themselves into perversion of their natural instincts, pursuing selfish and transcendent fantasies that clamored for a Freud to reveal their true nature. Our Calvinist forefathers had a mysticism of their own, of an especially unlovely type. And each of these diverse forms has found philosophies, theologies to support it: ideas of Karma, implying that human miseries of any kind were deserved by the sufferer by his sins in previous lives; ideas of a compensating Heaven waiting after death for the patient, the submissive; fatalism as to any human responsibility toward social conditions ordained by God. That hope of Heaven, that stress on what others besides John Stuart Mill regarded as slave-virtues, that old belief -- deadly half truth -- that the life of the soul, the only thing that matters, is independent of earthly circumstances. How often have these things been sedative and not incentive to social passion! How inevitable the secular, the anti-Christian reaction in Europe, in Russia!

There is the intense desire for perssonal purification, for the training of the inner life, for the mysical communion. This appears in sundry movements. The desire looks askance on humanitarian or social order, scenting evasion of the stern demands for holiness within. The class struggle means nothing to it, and reform movements leave it cold. On the other hand, there is the stress on "social Christianity." A "social gospel" is preached, disdainful of theology, rather scornful of introspective devotion, carrying everything before it so far as fluent speech goes, so that one may sometimes attend Church for a year, and hear excellent discourses on international peace, on industrial justice, on civil liberties, sex relations, social ethics in every phase; but rarely or never a word to help one's poor little old soul in its effort to enter into commerce with the Eternal.

Mystic and reformer, each distrusts the other. The mystic thinks the reformer evades the depths of life to deal with mere externals. The reformer turns from the mystic with more obvious point. Shall one talk the the joys and disciplines of the interior life to burdened tenement house women, and "wage-slaves" in factories? He has too much sense of humor; moreover if he draws close to such people he may suspect that sometimes they are nearer than he to to reality. As to himself, what does he care about his own spiritual well-bring? Ardently absorbed in fighting conditions that outrage every instinct of sympathy not to say justice, he is not likely to pay much attention to his own progress on the Way of Purification. There is a good deal of excuse for the impatience and occasional contempt with which people possessed by noble social passion regard those who are possesed by interest in their own souls.

Yet in the mystic vibrates the obstinate conviction that the social reformer is on the less important track. Mrs. Browing hits the nail on the head when, in her very splendid, very old-fashioned, forgotten poem, she makes her heroine Aurora Leigh exclaim to the radical young man immersed in the daring social experiments of the eighteen-fifties,

"Ah, your Fouriers failed,
Because not poets enough to understand
That life develops from within."
At long last, systems are feeble things compared with souls. From within, from within! As the psychological approach to social problems becomes increasingly stressed, the reformer recognizes this more and more. He knows that bath-tubs will not automatically produce brotherhood. No change in social conditions can ever be the whole story even if it meant the achievement at one fell swoop of perfect economic equality. Deep inward transformation must be the starting point, as it must also be the goal of social change. All this the reformer knows. But he does not see the way out.

The mystic can teach him. But he can only do so as he repudiates any trace of the ascetic self-centredness, once associated with his ideal, and escapes from egotism. His mysticism must become sacramental; it must recognize the Spirit moving everywhere through flesh and sense, and the responsibility of those born of the Spirit to see that the whole physical world, the whole social order, become the harmonious body through which the Love, the Lover, Uncreate and Eternal, forever seeking union with the souls of men, can find expression.

Mysticism and social passion are at long last helpless each without the other. Nor shall we have to defy history if we make this claim; we shall only have to select our facts. There has been plenty of arid mysticism in the world, plenty of thin humanitarian ardor. But quality not quantity, as one appraises life, is the criterion of value. And the most challenging souls, those who live closest to the heart of reality, have achieved the union. They have been social radicals and revolutionaries sustained by mystic faith. By this one does not mean the sentimental and optimistic pseudo-mysticism springing from generous hopefulness of temperament; still less the facile lower types of pantheism, but the attitude which relates itself to conviction and experience that the spirit of man is divine in origin, inbreathed and enabled by power from the Source of Life. Such has been the basis of the indomitable courage and achievement of a St. Theresa, a Mazzini, a Gandhi. Such the basis of of the troubling lives of Francis of Assisi and his sons.

In Francis himself the two impulses blended. The devotion to poverty of the exquisite lad, the brilliant young tradesman of Assisi, sprang from no ascetic dread of nature's gifts, no primary desire for personal purity, but from pure social compunction. His cry, "that man's poverty is a great shame to us" might be a note for all social endeavor. When he told the Bishop of Assisi, who was urging him to renounce his fantastic notions, that if he had property he should have to have arms to defend it, he analyzed the causes of war as deeply as any pacifist. But the vision of Love-in-Death, encircled with the wings of power and on La Verna sealing him for its own, marks the purest reach of mysticism the Middle Ages knew.

The worst danger the reformer confronts today is the progressive mechanization of life and his resultant sense of helplessness. The worst danger of the mystic is always a quest of spiritual privilege leading to aloofness from the common lot. May it not be that the precise situation in which we are caught, flings to each a special challenge which he can meet only with the help of the other?


It is not enough . . .

from The House of Prayer, by Florence Converse. New York, Dutton, 1908.

How can you hope to make the imperfect things perfect, unless you keep before your eyes the vision of God, who is perfection? The prayer that is only against evil destroys itself. If you look at nothing but sorrow and sin, your heart may at first be full of love and pity, but presently anger -- righteous perhaps, but still anger -- will enter and begin to crowd out love, and then despair will come and deaden pity, and at last will even smother righteous anger. And then there will be silence; for the heart that is filled with despair cannot pray.

It is not enough to know that the world is full of evil; we must know also that God is good.

Christ is a part of all the poverty and misery because he was born into it and didn't try to get away from it. If you put Him in the background, with the sin and sorrow all in front, how he shines and makes courage and hope! And if you put Him in the front, with the darkness all around Him, how He shines sgain! Either way, He is the light in the picture.


However much we need to continually re-examine and re-appropriate our formulae, I wonder at the naive optimism of those who seem to think that simply dumping the Catholic Creeds will somehow lead us into a new age of enlightened, scientific rationality. Our society being what it is, I suspect it is far more likely to lead us into an age of gross superstition -- of (commercially touted) amulets, pyramids, and crystals, and belief in an Invisible Hand, magically turning the economics of selfishness into the Common Good. -- Ted M.

Home Traditional Values The Heritage Friends and Companions Liturgical Ramblings Something of William Morris Some Good Reading Some Links The Jubilee Group