Ante Studium

Greetings all,

Sorry I didn’t post last week–I’ve been occupied with college orientation, which, as intended, has kept me far too busy to be homesick (or to do anything else!). I hope to continue my philosophical pursuits on this blog this year, but my posting may be more sporadic until I’m more settled. In the interim, I wanted to share a prayer from Thomas Aquinas I recently discovered that seems appropriate for this transitional time of year. Thank you immensely to all who have contributed to this blog in the past months by reading! Enjoy these words and blessings on your future adventures in learning.

-Ruth, The Interminable Socratic

Ante Studium

Creator ineffabilis,
qui de thesauris sapientiae tuae
tres Angelorum hierarchias designasti,
et eas super caelum empyreum
miro ordine collocasti,
atque universi partes elegantissime disposuisti,

tu inquam qui
verus fons
luminis et sapientiae diceris
ac supereminens principium

infundere digneris
super intellectus mei tenebras
tuae radium claritatis,
duplices in quibus natus sum
a me removens tenebras,
peccatum scilicet et ignorantiam.

Tu, qui linguas infantium facis disertas,
linguam meam erudias
atque in labiis meis gratiam
tuae benedictionis infundas.

Da mihi
intelligendi acumen,
retinendi capacitatem,
addiscendi modum et facilitatem,
interpretandi subtilitatem,
loquendi gratiam copiosam.

Ingressum instruas,
progressum dirigas,
egressum compleas.

Tu, qui es verus Deus et homo,
qui vivis et regnas in saecula saeculorum.

Amen.

A Prayer Before Study

Ineffable Creator,
Who, from the treasures of Your wisdom,
have established three hierarchies of angels,
have arrayed them in marvelous order
above the fiery heavens,
and have marshaled the regions
of the universe with such artful skill,

You are proclaimed
the true font of light and wisdom,
and the primal origin
raised high beyond all things.

Pour forth a ray of Your brightness
into the darkened places of my mind;
disperse from my soul
the twofold darkness
into which I was born:
sin and ignorance.

You make eloquent the tongues of infants.
refine my speech
and pour forth upon my lips
the goodness of Your blessing.

Grant to me
keenness of mind,
capacity to remember,
skill in learning,
subtlety to interpret,
and eloquence in speech.

May You
guide the beginning of my work,
direct its progress,
and bring it to completion.

You Who are true God and true Man,
who live and reign, world without end.

Amen.

Christianity & Liberalism

This past week, I had the opportunity to enjoy American theologian J. Gresham Machen’s celebrated 1923 work Christianity & Liberalism, a timeless response to then infant so-called “liberal Christianity.” In the decades since Machen wrote this book, liberalism has transitioned from being an innovative theological school to being the very air Christians breathe outside and often even inside the church, rendering Machen’s analysis uniquely enlightening for today’s church. In fact, this book is highly relevant today not only to orthodox Christians but also to all thoughtful experiencers of 21st century pluralism because of its shrewd differentiation between the objective basis of conservative Christianity and the subjective basis of liberalism.

In the book’s opening chapter, Machen presents the thesis he defends in subsequent pages: despite theological liberalism’s appropriation of Christian terminology, historic, biblical Christianity and modern liberal Christianity are in fact two separate and antithetical religions. In an attempt to safeguard Christianity against the then rapidly blossoming naturalistic disciplines of science, psychology, and historical criticism, Machen explains, liberal theologians attempted to extricate Christianity from these fields by reducing Christianity to a lifestyle. Yet in so doing, he contends, they created an entirely different religion that is both unscientific and unChristian in any historical sense.

In the next chapter, Machen defends this assertion by examining liberalism’s rejection of doctrine and embrace of “Christian experience” as the whole of the religion. He explains that the historical record of Paul’s epistles, the infant Christian church, and even the words of Jesus leave no justification for such a move in the name of Christianity; while it is possible that the message of Christianity is wrong, separating Christianity from its message is utterly historically unprecedented. Thus liberal theologians have created a completely new religion that Machen insists ought to be divorced from the historically established doctrinal faith of Christianity.

In his third chapter, Machen explores the vast differences between Christianity and liberalism even in their fundamental presuppositions about God and man. While Christianity’s view of God is grounded in the facts found in historical documents, liberalism bases man’s relationship to God on subjective human feelings. Moreover, he demonstrates that liberals’ suggestion that God is revealed only through Jesus is logically and biblically indefensible. Similarly, he maintains that the liberal rejection of the doctrine of sin and human nature utterly ignores not only biblical but also experiential reality, as his original readers, freshly weary from one atrocious world war and unwittingly on the brink of an even worse one, would be far less hasty to deny than many modern Western citizens.

Not surprisingly, then, Machen continues, having rejected the presuppositions of the Christian message, liberal theology rejects the message itself, taking a disdainful attitude towards Scripture. He details how liberal attempts to legitimize only certain words of Jesus constitute a grossly unscientific revision of history and insists that though the Christian message is certainly confirmed to an extent by Christian experience, Christianity that espouses only “Christian experience” while rejecting the message of Scripture is not Christianity at all. In Machen’s words,

…liberalism is totally different from Christianity, for the foundation is different. Christianity is founded upon the Bible. It bases upon the Bible both its thinking and its life. Liberalism on the other hand is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men. (p. 67)

In the next chapter of the book, Machen explicates the divide between liberals and Christians on the person and work of Christ: fundamentally, Christians view Jesus as the object of godly faith while liberals view him as the example of true faith, the first Christian rather than the author of Christianity. With only a few Scripture references, however, Machen demonstrates that Jesus as presented in Scripture cannot simply be an example of faith because of the audacious claims he persistently makes about Himself in the gospels; in light of these, He was obviously either an entirely different kind of human or else a perfect example of nothing more than lunacy. By rejecting Jesus’ deity, liberal theologians leave the historical Jesus obscure and unknowable, leading them to rely once more on their own subjective opinions and preferences rather than historical reality.

Next, Machen describes some of the numerous ways in which liberalism minimizes the salvific work of Christ–while Christianity considers salvation to be the result of a work of God, on the rare occasions that it acknowledges a need for salvation, liberalism attributes it to humanity. Frequently, theological liberals interpret Jesus’ death as an example of Christian self-sacrifice, but once again, Machen shows, this conflicts with the historic teachings of all who have called themselves Christians. More soberingly still, he notes, by humanizing Christ’s work, liberals also trivialize it. As previously, he demonstrates that the liberal notion of an unconditionally forgiving God is both biblically unsound and indefensible in light of the repercussions of humans’ sins against one another (let alone against God). Throughout, Machen affirms that Christianity is far more than the bare facts of the life of a Jewish carpenter who lived two thousand years ago; undeniably, the joy and intimacy of a relationship with the Creator that liberal Christians so crave is a fundamental component of biblical Christianity–but this joy is always and only found upon comprehending the awesomely humbling truth of the facts of the Gospel.

In his final chapter, Machen concludes with reflections on how conservative Christians ought to respond to the presence of liberalism in the church. Once more, he shows that true Christianity and liberal Christianity conflict starkly even on the purpose of the Church they claim to share because liberals believe the church as a human institution can and will transform society. Gospel-centered Christians, however, recognize that only the saving work of Christ can change the world, and this revolution progresses one redeemed soul at a time. With his final words, Machen encourages struggling conservative Christians to rest in this fact, knowing that God has always sustained His Bride in the past and that He promises to continue to do so in the future.

From the first page of Christianity and Liberalism to the last, Machen’s point could not be clearer: unlike the Christianity of the Bible, liberalism is based on a denial of reality (and while Machen specifically addresses theological liberalism, to an extent the same can certainly be said of political and social liberalism as well). On the outset, this fact may seem encouraging for conservatives–as Machen points out, philosophies founded on fantasy must inevitably fail. Unfortunately, though, these dangerous ideas do have dangerous consequences for the lives of the Image-bearing but fallen individuals who espouse them, individuals who “[love] the darkness rather than the light” (John 1:19 ESV), individuals no true Christian can be content to resign to their own folly. The Christian’s task here certainly is not easy–the world, flesh, and devil conspire against him–but mercifully, with us in our battle against attractive lies we have the ultimate Beauty, the one who is literally “the truth” (John 14:6), the crucified and resurrected Son of God of biblical doctrine who alone can deliver the freedom liberalism only nominally claims to provide.

Politicized Sex & the Proles in 1984

In the modern democratic West, George Orwell’s political novels are widely regarded as all but divinely dictated prophecies warning of the horrors of totalitarianism, but as is so often the case with prophecies, Orwell’s work generally raises far more questions than it attempts to answer. In his magnum opus 1984, for example, Orwell initially introduces as major themes both the politicization of sex and the necessity of the proletariat to beneficial political upheaval—but by the end of the novel, both themes are long forgotten by most readers. Nevertheless, these two evidently insignificant themes are actually intimately related to one another and, like many of Orwell’s observations, highly relevant not only to 20th century victims of totalitarianism but to the democratic citizens of the 21st as well.

Orwell’s exploration of the political power of sex takes place primarily within the protagonist Winston Smith’s affair with the youthful and sensuous Julia, an act of daring disdain towards the Party’s staunch standards of chastity. As Julia explains, the Party’s regulation of sex is far more than an attempt to control members’ bodies: 

“When you make love you’re using up energy; and afterwards you feel happy and don’t give a damn for anything. They can’t bear you to feel like that. They want you to be bursting with energy all the time. All this marching up and down and cheering and waving flags is simply sex gone sour. If you’re happy inside yourself, why should you get excited about Big Brother and the Three-Year Plans and the Two Minutes Hate and all the rest of their bloody rot?” (133)

Consequently, the couple’s sexual interactions are both “a battle” and “a victory”; intercourse is “a blow struck against the Party,” “a political act,” and “the force that would tear the Party to pieces” (126). 

Meanwhile, Orwell develops a second theme through Winston’s thoughts and conversations, suggesting that only the impoverished Proles have the power to undermine the Party. Winston first encounters this theory only as an inexplicable intuition, but he eventually realizes that the Proles’ immunity to the Party is related to their uniquely human emotions. The Proles are “governed by private loyalties which they [do] not question. . . . They [are] not loyal to a party or a country or an idea, they [are] loyal to one another” (165). Understandably, in Orwell’s humanistic socialist opinion, this non-coerced familial love for one’s community promises to preclude the development of a society like the one pictured in 1984.

Consequently, the link between these two evidently disparate themes becomes obvious: because the Proles have largely maintained control over their own sexual (and ergo familial) lives, they have preserved their power over their own emotions, affections, and loyalties. As the ultimate expression of mutual affection and an essential component of the nuclear family unit, sex radically influences one’s attachments—and so, perspicaciously, the Party and the Anti-Sex League mandate their members’ affections and ultimately their political affiliations by legally designating their sex lives. And this phenomenon is not only a literary invention of Orwell’s—while superficially dissimilar to Orwell’s politicized abstinence, historical movements ranging from misogynistic components of the modern alt-right to lesbian feminism to perhaps most explicitly the monogamy-smashing orgies of the Weather Underground and the 20th century sexual revolution have demonstrated and continue to demonstrate that sex truly can be “a political act.” 

Indeed, though they seem to fade from the narrative in Part III of the novel, these secondary themes are actually extrapolations of 1984’s principle theme: “God is power” (264). By sexually directing Party members’ affections, the Party gains power over their hearts, the power to tear “human minds to pieces and [put] them together again in new shapes of [its] own choosing” (266), that ability most coveted by human pride. Consequently, the Proles’ seemingly simple sexual and emotional freedom is of great political significance. 

Nevertheless, the plot of this dystopian novel does not suggest a utopian strategy to normalize this proletarian power of innocent emotion. The climax of the novel reveals that Winston’s prior assumption that “they can’t get inside you” (166)—that the Party ultimately cannot contort one’s deepest affections and emotions—is utterly false. Worse still, Winston learns that the very raw, unadulterated emotions (namely fear) for which he admired the Proles can actually easily overthrow and even reverse the fiercest love. In reality, Orwell suggests, sex is not only politically manipulatable; it can also ultimately demolish personal autonomy. By all appearances, then, while the year 1984 has come and gone, not even the true love of mankind is sufficient to save humanity from the tyranny of the world pictured in Orwell’s novel.

All citations taken from:

Orwell, George. 1984. Signet Classics, 1949.