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Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

REVELATION: NATURAL, SPECIAL

Commentary, Rom. 1:18-23, 2:14-16

Inscribed upon the stars and in our bones

Is truth we know so well and yet suppress.

The hardest tablets are not made of stone.

In spite of all we say that we condone,

Conscience whispers softly nonetheless

Of Laws within the stars and in our bones.

We drown the Voice with chatter; on we drone.

It calls us back, but still we will digress:

The hardest tablets were not made of stone.

When Moses climbed the Mountain all alone,

A Finger into slabs of rock impressed

What stood upon the stars and in our bones.

Before he could get back, they would be thrown

To break against the flint within our breasts:

The hardest tablets were not made of stone.

Part of Creation’s universal groan,

The Voice will not be stilled, for still it rests

Inscribed upon the stars and in our bones:

The hardest tablets are not made of stone.

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  And look for Williams’ very latest books: Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis (Baltimore: Square Halo Books, 2016) and “An Encouraging Thought”: The Christian Worldview in the Writings of L. R. R. Tolkien (Cambridge, OH: Christian Publishing House, 2018)!  Order from the publisher or Amazon.

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 Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

Jerusalem from the Old City Wall

The early church father Tertullian famously asked, “Where does Athens meet Jerusalem?”  Athens and Jerusalem were synechdoches for Hellenistic and Hebraic culture, or more specifically, human reason and divine revelation.  Tertullian implied that there was no intersection between the two, an assertion that was true in one sense and profoundly false in another.  It is true that God’s revealed truth is a challenge to fallen human wisdom, not a supplement to it.  But the answers it gives are answers to the same questions all human beings have to ask, answers whose full implications can only be discerned in the light of those questions and of the history of our failed attempts to figure them out on our own, with our rebellious assumptions and premises.  The failure to understand the proper relationship between reason and revelation that Tertullian represents has hindered revelation from shedding the light it was meant to shed: that Light that, coming into the world, needs to enlighten every man.

 

THE HELLENE AND THE HEBREW

Commentary, Rom. 12:1 (KJV)

 

So where does Athens meet Jerusalem?

Tertullian couldn’t find a single place

And thus condemned the blind and groping race

To groping blindness.  Greeks?  Well, as for them,

They asked the Questions brilliantly, but slim

Or none the odds that they would ever trace

The Answers, which the Jew in every case

Possessed; the Questions never occurred to him.

 

Separate, they both remain opaque,

A price we pay for our ancestral treason.

The unexamined life will never find

A Cross between the two is what can make

The sacrifice of self an act of Reason:

To love the Lord your God with all your mind.

Modern Jerusalem from Mount Scopus

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  And look for Williams’ very latest book, Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis, from Square Halo Books!

Donald T. Williams, PhD

 

More thoughts on the stage as a writer’s laboratory: Eating like snakes

At a first reading the complexity of the images in the Apocalypse may baffle and confuse us, but if we persevere we shall become thankful for it.  It means that no image stands alone, but has its place and sense determined by a whole surrounding world of images.  In the Apocalypse every image is bound to the others by a delicate web of interrelated significance . . .[1]

One of the important things about theatre is that it forces you to think in wholes.  A man may walk out on a performance halfway through – but if he does, he cannot come back to it later at the same point; the play isn’t in his video player, and he cannot stick a bookmark in it.  Likewise the actors cannot perform the first scene of a play, and then stop the performance and resume two days later.  The performance, once commenced, must be brought to completion.  It will not wait either for actors or audience.  The whole story must be told.  There are no half-measures with a play’s performance: you swallow the whole, or you get nothing.  You cannot cut the thing into parts for piecemeal eating.

snakeThe attempt at cutting up wholes into parts creates problems. For example, most of the complaints of people who “don’t like Shakespeare” would be answered if they saw his plays performed.  If you read them silently in the privacy of your room, one scene at a time, for the purpose of extracting some nugget that will allow you to ace your exam, then of course they will seem odious.  Shakespeare didn’t write them to be taken in like that.  “Life . . . is a tale / told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / signifying nothing”[2] may appear idiotic in isolation, but if you’ve just watched the whole play and the trajectory of Macbeth’s life within it, would you expect him to say anything else?

This principle applies with equal force to other genres and mediums, though.  For example, the books of the New Testament were written (mostly[3]) to be read, out loud, to whole churches gathered in meeting-houses.  The Revelation to St. John may have been copied for the seven churches, but it assuredly was not photocopied for the private reading of the members of those churches.  The book was written whole, to be read audibly and whole, and heard whole by a whole community.  The wacky interpretations of Revelation arise largely because most of us don’t read the book that way anymore.  We miss that each of the vivid images really is bound to all the others in a delicate web.[4]

The same is true of St. Paul’s epistles.  Some time ago, I watched actor Stephen Trafton bring that point home with special force by a public, corporate reading of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  What does “though [Christ Jesus] was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant . . .”[5] have to do with St. Timothy’s qualifications as a minister of the gospel, or the quarrel between Euodia and Syntyche?  Only everything – but you have to hear the letter read whole to get that.[6]

More recently, Stephen brought the point home again by issuing an interesting challenge: pick one Pauline epistle, and read the whole thing out loud in one sitting.  I picked Colossians.  The effect of reading this letter, which Paul wrote to a small church in a little town on a mountainside in Turkey, as a whole rather than as a series of isolated parts, was astonishing.  For example, in what we call Colossians 1:13-14 and 2:13-15, Paul summarizes the gospel in a series of shorthand statements: (1) you were delivered from the kingdom of darkness and transferred to the Kingdom of Jesus; (2) in Jesus you have redemption, the forgiveness of sins; (3) God set your sin-debt aside by nailing it to the cross of Jesus; and (4) in the cross God in Christ triumphed over the rulers and authorities.  Here is gospel as redemption and Exodus, gospel as forgiveness of sins, as payment of sin-debt by a substitutionary payment, and gospel as victory over evil rulers.  None of these images can be isolated from the others; Paul hardly draws breath in moving between them, and in the transitions he connects and does not isolate them.  The source of the notion that the Gospel of the Kingdom is a thing different from, or subtly out of step with, the Gospel of Justification, is not St. Paul.  The same goes for the question of whether the cross is primarily where God forgives sins, or where God triumphs over the powers of evil.  The Pauline gospel, no less than the gospels composed by the four evangelists, is a thing meant to be swallowed whole, for a kind of slow inward digestion we can’t help but notice.


[1] Austin Farrer, A Rebirth of Images: The Making of St. John’s Apocalypse 18 (Wipf and Stock 2006)(1963).

[2] William Shakespeare, Macbeth V. v.

[3] The exceptions being St. Paul’s pastoral epistles, Philemon, and possibly St. Luke’s writings.

[4] Farrer, A Rebirth of Images at 18.

[5] Philippians 2:5 ff.

[6] It helps to have a really good actor, like Stephen, performing the role of lector.  For more information on his work, you may visit him on Twitter or Facebook.

PHILOSOPHY AND WISDOM

PHILOSOPHY: THE LOVE OF WISDOM?

If our writings are going to communicate the biblical world view, we have to know what it is.  Therefore, there is a need for Christian writers to be good thinkers, competent in philosophy and theology, as well as good creative writers.  To that end, watch for my forthcoming Lantern Hollow Press book REFLECTIONS FROM PLATO’S CAVE: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy.  To whet your appetite, start with the meditation below.

Philosophyphileo plus sophia, the love of wisdom.  Wisdom:  not intelligence (which is just processing speed) or knowledge (which is just information) or even understanding (which is seeing how one’s bits of knowledge relate to one another), but something more.  Wisdom is the knack of using one’s intelligence, knowledge, and understanding in useful and beneficial ways.  For Christians, it means using one’s intelligence, knowledge, and understanding in ways that glorify God, advance His kingdom, and bring blessing to His people.

It may seem hard to find much wisdom in the technical arguments of professional academic philosophers today, but it is there for those who know how to look.  (It may not be in the conclusions to their arguments!)  I hope there is some to be found in the philosophical musings I have indulged in over the years, not wholly unrelated to the conclusions of my arguments.  If I want you to find it, maybe I should be able to find it myself.  What have I learned from thinking philosophically?  More to the point, what have I learned from it that I can properly call wisdom?

Perhaps the first lesson is humility.  It is the glory of man that we cannot rest until we understand the world around us and understand ourselves.  We are the only species that is impelled to ask the Great Questions:  What is real?  Who are we?  Why are we here?  What is the good?  How do we know?  We are ennobled in that we ask, but we are brought low by our failure to find, or, finding, to live by, the answers.

To study the history of philosophy is to learn how our best thinking when unaided by revelation from above always leads to an irresolvable impasse.  It does so because, apart from revelation, we end up looking for the ultimate in a place where it cannot be found: within the circles of the finite world.  Hence we get the infamous false choices for which philosophy is famous:  Heraklitus and flux, or Parmenides and permanence?  Plato’s rationalism and realism, or Aristotle’s empiricism and nominalism? They are both right and both wrong.  Forms neither as immanent in matter nor as existing on their own but as the rationes aeterna in the mind of a personal God capable of grounding them because He is the source of both form and matter—for, that we would need the operation of revelation on a redeemed and receptive mind.  There is no other way to get it.

Without revelation and the receptive mind, we end up with people fighting over what are at best partial glimpses of the truth.  And our best thinkers never quite live up even to their partial glimpses.  Only as God stoops to us in revelation do we find answers that are whole; only as He stoops to us in grace do we accept those answers and find the ability to live them out.  If following in the footsteps of our best unaided thinkers to see the impasses that result from their thinking helps us more clearly to see and appreciate our limitations, then the first lesson of wisdom we learn is humility—and the second is gratitude.  Humility from our inability, gratitude for God’s supply: surely humility and gratitude are essential parts of a life of wisdom!

Sadly, many people who study philosophy do not learn humility or gratitude from it, but rather arrogance in the defense of one of those limited and partial viewpoints.  One even finds those who are arrogant in their defense of the seemingly humbling proposition that we cannot know anything!  But, then, people are fallen, prideful, and stubborn in their pursuit of other fields of study just as well (including theology).  The fault therefore lies not with philosophy but with the philosophers, that is, with us.  Only by God’s grace do we pursue anything wisely, that is, humbly and gratefully.  Those who have been captured by God’s grace in Jesus Christ then should apply themselves to philosophy because, just as bad philosophy has to be answered by good philosophy, so sinful philosophers have to be answered by redeemed ones—by their existence as much as by their arguments.

From the best Christian philosophers, such as Augustine, Anselm, and C. S. Lewis, one can also learn this wisdom:  confidence that Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are real things, objectively rooted in the nature of the God of creation and objectively imprinted by Him onto the world He has made.  They are rightly called “the transcendentals”: they are supremely valuable and are their own justification precisely because Truth is the reflection of God’s mind, Goodness of His character, and Beauty of His glory.  And we, created in His image and redeemed by His blood, may participate in them, yea, bathe in them.  We find our purpose and our fulfillment in doing so, because thus we reflect Him to the world.  If Christians do not gain confidence and boldness and indeed joy in their pursuit of these transcendental values from thinking philosophically, then they are missing the point, profoundly and colossally missing the point, as badly as the most secularized sophist on the planet, and with less excuse. If they do not promote and encourage confidence, boldness, and joy in the pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty by the way they do and teach and write philosophy, then they have betrayed their calling.

If I am on track in the last paragraph, then I have also learned that Solomon was right:  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  Nothing can claim to be wisdom that does not rest on, flow from, and promote in us the reverent, humble, and grateful acknowledgement of His necessary existence, His Trinitarian personality, His divine majesty, His rightful sovereignty, and His supreme worthiness of all worship and devotion.  It is ultimately He who must teach us this, by revealing Himself to us in His Son, the eternal logos who enlightens every man and who came into the world.  Our philosophical search for truth without that act of grace on His part is but vanity and striving after wind.  Philosophy, in other words, is not the key to understanding Him; it is He who must illumine our philosophy.

(I am not affirming fideism here, by the way.  I have made arguments for God’s existence in this journal.  But I am recognizing that He is more than the conclusion to a logical argument; He is the reason why logical argument is possible in the first place.  I am recognizing that, even so far as they are valid, those arguments will only be accepted and will only have their intended effect in leading to wisdom when they are used by His Spirit as part of His gracious work of conviction and calling, leading to regeneration, conversion, and sanctification—including the sanctification of the mind.  May He graciously grant my prayers by so using them.)

When God does illumine us, philosophy can help us see things about ourselves, our need, and His grace in meeting that need, that we might otherwise have missed.  It is better for redeemed sinners to wonder about who we are, why we are here, what is real and what is good, and how we know, and to find their answers in Him, than it is for them to remain ignorant.  So Augustine and Anselm had it right all along:  Credo ut intelligam, “I believe that I might understand.”  Fides quaerens intellectum, “faith in search of understanding.”

You will know that your faith is producing understanding, you will know that your philosophical thinking has been profitable, when it leads you to the humble and grateful love of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, and to their manifestation in your life to the glory of God.  Then perhaps we can redeem the etymological definition of philosophy as the love of wisdom.  May God grant it by His grace, for our good and His glory.

Amen.

For more of the authors own glimpses of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, go to https://www.createspace.com/2563414 and order STARS THROUGH THE CLOUDS: THE COLLECTED POETRY OF DONALD T. WILLIAM (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011).