Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What's New About the New Testament?

Today, as often happens, I came across a book on the library shelves and took it to browse while drinking my mid-morning cup of tea. It was The Hutchinson Book of Essays, containing essays on a variety of subjects from authors down several centuries.

I wonder if my twelve-year-old self would have been horrified to know that, by the time he reached the grand old age of thirty-five, the essay would be his favourite form of reading? Nothing could have seemed duller to me, in my childhood and teens, than an essay. Whenever I was given an essay title in English class I promptly wrote a short story.

Now I find myself less and less interested in fiction and more and more interested in ideas and argument and reflections, addressed to me directly, "man to man"-- as though the author was sitting opposite me over a steaming cup of tea. My favourite writer now is G.K. Chesterton, and it is his essays (including his book length essays) that I love. I have indeed read his fiction, but with reluctance and with merely fitful interest, and also with the wish that he would drop the tedious characters and scenery and just say what he meant to say.

So I opened the book of essays with eagerness. But after skimming through a few, what struck me most was a certain atmosphere which was common to all of them-- and which is notably absent in the essays of Chesterton (and those of C.S. Lewis, my other favourite essayist). I think it is an atmosphere which is, in fact, the underlying mood of human life in general, but which is especially noticeable in essays, since essays are necessarily reflective.

I will try to describe this mood.

Underneath all the excitement of festivity, of acquisition (carrying a new book away from the bookshop, for instance), of problem-solving, of the anticipation of physical pleasures like food and drink, I think there is a fundamental gloominess and weariness to human existence. It is a melancholy rather than a despair. William Wordsworth described it perfectly, in his poem about Tintern Abbey, when he wrote about the "still, sad music of humanity".

The world is very old, and it was very old long before history began. Pleasures soon pall, and even bring a bitter afterbite in the form of regret and hangovers and disappointment. Most of what we say is said simply to fill silence. Most of what we do, aside from the things we are required to do, is done to fill time-- this is why we so soon become bored when we have no work or duties, none of the things we do against our inclinations but without which we soon feel at a loss.

Taking all this into account-- this cycle of desire and disappointment, this ever-present spectre of boredom and futility-- I find it no suprise at all that the Eastern religions urged their followers to escape from the cycle of desire and satisfaction, from the round of bith and rebirth, and even to escape from selfhood. I do not find it surprising that the ancient classical world was so keen on the philosophy of the Stoics, the doctrine that it is best to break away from hope and dread and disappointment, to stop searching for joy and fulfilment in the outside world, and to instead concentrate on how you acquit yourself no matter which way the cookie crumbles.

In a way, I think that the Stoic philosophy is the natural philosophy of mankind-- of mankind when it is in a reflective mood, and not wrapped up in some particular excitement or scheme (which is, fortunately, a lot of the time). I think this explains why Rudyard Kipling's "If" is often voted the most popular poem of all time. Don't get me wrong, I think it's a superb poem, but the content is rather sad when you think about it:

If you can dream, and not make dreams your master;
If you can think, and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same....
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds worth of distance run...

The poem seems to be saying that the best thing we can hope for in life is to keep a straight bat, not to let the side down, to meet whatever the world throws at us cheerfully and gracefully. Though the lines do give us pleasure, since they are so happily expressed, the philosophy they express is a rather sad and proud one.

The wisdom writing of humanity, in general, seems to come to the same conclusion. "Lines Written in a Country Churchyard", that other candidate for most popular poem of all time, also takes a melancholy and rather weary view of human life. Samuel Johnson tells us that "Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed". Philip Larkin tells us that "Life is first boredom, then fear. Whether or not you spend it, it goes". The Book of Ecclesiastes tells us that there is nothing new under the sun, and that all is vanity and vexation of spirit. Taking it right up to date, the modern proverb tells us that life's a bitch and then you die.

But perhaps the best example is the one given by Abraham Lincoln, at an address in Milwaukee:

"It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: "And this, too, shall pass away." How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!"

Consoling, perhaps, but not exactly inspiring-- though it does have a kind of grim grandeur.

My point, which I'm sure you can guess by now, is that I think Christianity fills human life with a hope and a fervour that is simply not native to it. Left to itself, and outside moments of special excitement, humanity always seems to settle down to philosophies of resignation. It may be a cheerful resignation or a bleak resignation, but it is ultimately resignation.

I don't believe that Christianity is simply an allegory for all the highest and happiest instincts of the human race. I think that, without the Gospel, human nature never attains those heights. It may yearn for them, but even the yearning is buried deep inside us.

Think of how often the motif of newness is used in the Gospel. Christ tells his disciples at the Last Supper, "I will not drink from henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I shall drink it with you new in the kingdom of my Father." "I give you a new commandment; love one another." "Nobody puts new wine into old wineskins." "Unless a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." And then there are the words in the Book of Revelations: "He that sat upon the throne said, behold, I make all things new."

Of course I am biased, but I think this lustre of newness shines from Christianity even after all these many centuries. There is something child-like and fresh about zealous Christians that seems to contrast starkly with the old, tired world around around them. Even the use of Christian symbols or Christian language seems to infuse a kind of morning air into any given atmosphere, discussion or event.

Christ called his followers the salt of the Earth, and it is one of my favourite images from the Gospel. Because salt is both a seasoning and a preservative.

And how is it that Christ's words have remained so startling, so challenging, so revolutionary (in the best sense) even after having been quoted relentlessly for so many generations? The Beatitudes are still bombshells. The parables still haunt us. The words of the Messiah are still, after so many millions of homilies and allusions and discussions, surprising. They are more surprising than the witticism of the hour or the epigram of the moment. The New Testament is newer than the news headlines.

Of course, you could make the same claim for any writer or poet or philosopher who has endured through the ages; for Socrates or Shakespeare or Sir Walter Scott. But I don't think it's the same thing. The same pressure has not been put upon the words of any other wise man. Millions of people have devoted their lives to following the words of Christ, and whole societies have sought to pattern themselves upon his teaching. And yet his words and teachings have never passed into platitude or truism. They did not simply become absorbed by society's bloodstream to the extent that they were no longer interesting. They remain as revelatory and shocking to us as they were to his first listeners.

I am aware that all my claims here could easily be disputed, or even ridiculed. An unsympathetic reader might say that he could just as easily demonstrate, from selective quotation, that the soul of the world is spry and spontaneous rather than old and weary. An anti-Christian could simply shrug and say that he catches no scent of morning air at the mention of Christ, merely the dusty smell of old hymn-books. I can't help that. But I think most people, if they are honest with themselves, will admit that the world really does tend towards world-weariness and that the Christian creed really does carry along with it a unique youthfulness of spirit.

Abraham Lincoln's Eastern sages, representing the natural resources of mankind, boiled all wisdom down to the words: "This, too, shall pass". Our blessed Lord proclaimed: "Heaven and Earth shall pass away, but my words shall never pass away". In that contrast, for me, lies the great difference between the World and the Creed.


  1. That's very good. All that I can really add is a rather lame "I agree". This is something that I would have been very pleased to have written myself were it possible.

    I will however say that this mood that you've described so well is something that I think most people feel particularly when they hit their 30s. The body and the various biological imperatives finally loosen their grip on the mind and let the person see things with clear, cold eyes. The simple cheap, thrills and instant gratifications don't evoke the same response any more. People realize that whatever sort of person they are at this point is probably what they're going to be. Jazz music suddenly begins to sound really good.. Jack Black summed it up to an extent, “When I was a kid, I thought I was the strongest man in the world. Then, the fastest runner and then the smartest person in the world. One by one my delusions got shut down. Now I just see myself as the lamest guy in the world.”
    For me personally, everything about this phase of my life (I'm about to turn 35) has been a massive relief. When someone tells me they wish that they were 21 again, all that I can do is stare incredulously.

    Speaking of Johnson, I remember a passage from his biographer stating something to the effect that his faith lit the way for him but gave him no warmth or comfort. This is something that I suspect many Catholics are familiar with in modern times. I go to mass on Sundays, but for the rest of the week I'm a secular man walking through a secular society. I don't think that my ancestors knew how good they had it.

    If I remember correctly that story about the eastern monarch was in Herodotus as well, which I guess is where Lincoln got it from.

  2. I'm not sure the inhabitants of Christendom were luckier than us. Sometimes I do long for a Christian society, but at the same time, going against the tide of secularism has some benefits, at least in my mind. First of all, I am a contrarian by nature and I take a certain glee in being on the unpopular side. Secondly, nobody can accuse a Christian in the Western society of our age of having a purely unthinking or automatic fate, since he or she is constantly being challenged. Thirdly, Christ's Beatitudes seem to tell us that it is more blessed for our faith to be uphill work.

    I agree with you about one's twenties. I remember being depressed for most of it and I find my thirties a blessed relief. If I could go back, it would probably be to the age of fifteen-- not because it was idyllic, but because I would like to do everything differently. All the same I can't identify with Jack Black's words at all. When I was a boy, my vision of my future was utterly bleak. I expected to be homeless and unemployed. I guess I missed out on the natural exuberance of youth.

    Thank you so much for your kind words, by the way.